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Move over turkey. Here comes the Thanksgiving ham

Can you imagine a Christmas ham on your Thanksgiving dinner table in place of the traditional turkey? My guess is you can’t, but it’s a scenario some agricultural economists have been worrying about for months. Many commentators feared that ordinary Americans would be driven to this holiday mix-up by that wonderful tool that helps allocate scarce resources: prices.  Thankfully, the price disruption is not as bad as predicted.

The concerns came from a massive outbreak of avian flu this summer. The disease ravaged states that are crucial to the production of our beloved holiday birds, leading to the loss of more than 7.5 million turkeys. The outbreak has cost turkey farmers around $500 million. The epidemic also stoked concerns that turkey prices would rise dramatically, accelerating the traditional New Year diets and weight loss plans into November.

At the same time, pork production is skyrocketing and approaching an all-time high. But a strong greenback has been dampening international demand for American pigs, driving ham to its lowest seasonal price in six years. This led some onlookers to wonder whether price-conscious families might substitute ham for turkey this year at the Thanksgiving table. Should President Obama pardon a pig this week rather than following tradition and freeing a turkey?

Thankfully, the effect on turkey prices was nowhere near as dramatic as the image of a Thanksgiving ham suggests. You see, the U.S. produces 228 million turkeys each year, and the sick birds represented around 3 percent of the total. Further, many of the Thanksgiving birds had already been frozen before the disease took hold. In fact, while fresh turkey prices are up about 10 cents per pound, frozen turkey prices are actually slightly cheaper this year.

It’s the side dishes that should worry you this year. They are poised to hurt your pocketbook more than turkey. Prices for sweet potatoes are up 28 percent, regular potatoes are 8 percent more expensive and eggs will cost you a dollar extra. And while dessert might add a bit to your waistline, it has the potential to leave your wallet lighter. In one extreme case, a two-pack of a sold-out Walmart Patti LaBelle sweet potato pies is being offered on eBay for $12,000 after a video review of it went viral. Walmart had been selling the pie for under $4.

Analysts estimate this year’s meal will cost on average 6 percent more than last year’s.

Prices fluctuate from year to year, and we can’t plan for random events like a flu outbreak. But stepping back and looking at a longer time horizon can help us prepare for the future. For instance, it seems virtually certain that the global middle class is going to be larger — much larger — 15 years from now than it is today. And this expanded universe of consumers will drive a massive increase in demand for food; some experts predict a 35 percent increase by 2030.


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This rise will be particularly pronounced for protein. When people get more money, they tend to consume more meat. This increase in demand will ripple through the entire meat value chain, from the grain fed to animals to fertilizers used to support grain yields. These structural forces may lead to a steady rise in your Thanksgiving meal bill for years to come, independent of random yearly events.

Of course, nothing is certain, and a variety of factors could counteract this trend. For example, we could see a dramatic downshift in demand for protein due to health concerns. Just think about the World Health Organization’s recent warning about a link between processed meats and cancer. We could also see a massive increase in food production efficiency thanks to the adoption of alternative protein sources or the genetic modification of ones that are already popular.  Scaling back food-for-fuel policies might increase supply while increasing affordability. We should watch these developments closely.

Even the Thanksgiving dinner table is a vivid reminder of the complexity and uncertainty surrounding every aspect of the modern world. As the outlook for protein suggests, a booming middle class may soon be gobbling up turkeys and hams alike. So this year, as always, let’s be thankful that we can take a day to sit with family and enjoy a meal together — and remember those who can’t.

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