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Though tame through most of last year, food inflation has begun to surge again in 2013 - just as Money Morning Global Resources Specialist Peter Krauth predicted it would.
"Food inflation hasn't reared its head for some time, and I think it's about to start making headlines again before long," Krauth wrote in a Jan. 18 note to subscribers of his Real Asset Returns investment service.
Sure enough, an inflation report yesterday (Wednesday) from the Labor Department showed that the biggest increase in January prices came in the food category.
Food prices - for both groceries and food eaten at restaurants - rose 0.7% in January, compared with December, accounting for more than three-fourths of the increase in the Producer Price Index (PPI).
The biggest driver of food inflation in January was the cost of vegetables, which rocketed 39%, withbroccoli, cauliflower and lettuce increasing the most.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service is projecting food prices in 2013 will increase 3% to 4%, an annual increase the agency says is above the historical average.
The ERS said it expects animal-based food products (mostly meats) to be hit hardest, with cereals and bakery products also seeing above-average price increases.
The return of food inflation to the U.S. should come as no surprise, as it has become a worldwide trend over the past decade.
The Food Price Index developed by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has more than doubled from 97.7 in 2003 to 209.8 now following a decade of stability. (The index stood at about 102 in 1993.)
What's Driving Food Inflation?
Food inflation has several underlying causes, none of which figure to improve any time soon.
"Oil and transportation are a big factor in food prices," Krauth explained. "And if you look at oil, it started climbing in late December, and has remained high. But more importantly, gasoline was on the cusp of a breakout in mid-January. That came through, and I think will be maintained."
Gas figures into food prices not just because most of it is moved by truck, but because mechanized farming consumes a great deal of fuel in the production of crops.
At the same time, the drought affecting much of the U.S. hasn't gone away. As of mid-February, 56% of the country was still in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
"The drought will have a significant impact on prices, especially beef, pork and chicken," Ernie Gross, an economics professor at Creighton University who studies farming issues, told CNBC.
"Forecasts are for a 4% increase in food this year, but I think that's on the low side if the drought continues. Food prices will likely be going up much more than the forecast."
And relief is not on the way.
"In fact, we are forecasting drier conditions," Roger Pulwarty, director of the National Integrated Drought Information System, a federal agency, told Reuters.
Beyond the short-term factors, several long-term trends have contributed to food inflation, including a growing global population and the increasing use of food crops like corn to make biofuels.
How to Profit From Food Inflation
No one likes to see their grocery bill rise, but the silver lining for investors is that there are ways to profit from food inflation.
Rising food prices will spur companies to increase food production, creating several profit opportunities.
But when it comes to profiting from food inflation, Krauth prefers another group of stocks.
"One of the better ways to play higher food prices is through the fertilizers," Krauth said. "I like potash. Shipments are expected to be up as much as 10% this year.Major contracts for supply have been signed with both China and India."
But there's another potash stock Krauth likes more than those, one he thinks will climb even higher as food inflation continues in 2013. Here's how you can get that pick and find out more about Krauth's favorite commodity investments in his Real Asset Returns service.
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About the Author
David Zeiler, Associate Editor for Money Morning at Money Map Press, has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including 18 spent at The Baltimore Sun. He has worked as a writer, editor, and page designer at different times in his career. He's interviewed a number of well-known personalities - ranging from punk rock icon Joey Ramone to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Over the course of his journalistic career, Dave has covered many diverse subjects. Since arriving at Money Morning in 2011, he has focused primarily on technology. He's an expert on both Apple and cryptocurrencies. He started writing about Apple for The Sun in the mid-1990s, and had an Apple blog on The Sun's web site from 2007-2009. Dave's been writing about Bitcoin since 2011 - long before most people had even heard of it. He even mined it for a short time.
Dave has a BA in English and Mass Communications from Loyola University Maryland.