Agflation : Food prices – Cheap no more (The Economist)

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Food prices – Cheap no more

Rising incomes in Asia and ethanol subsidies in America have put an end to a long era of falling food prices

ONE of the odder features of last weekend’s vote in Venezuela was that staple foods were in short supply. Something similar happened in Russia before its parliamentary election. Governments in both oil-rich countries had imposed controls on food prices, with the usual consequences. Such controls have been surprisingly widespread—a knee-jerk response to one of the most remarkable changes that food markets, indeed any markets, have seen for years: the end of cheap food. In early September the world price of wheat rose to over $400 a tonne, the highest ever recorded. In May it had been around $200. Though in real terms its price is far below the heights it scaled in 1974, it is still twice the average of the past 25 years. Earlier this year the price of maize (corn) exceeded $175 a tonne, again a world record. It has fallen from its peak, as has that of wheat, but at $150 a tonne is still 50% above the average for 2006. As the price of one crop shoots up, farmers plant it to take advantage, switching land from other uses. So a rise in wheat prices has knock-on effects on other crops. Rice prices have hit records this year, although their rise has been slower. The Economist‘s food-price index is now at its highest since it began in 1845, having risen by one-third in the past year.

Normally, sky-high food prices reflect scarcity caused by crop failure. Stocks are run down as everyone lives off last year’s stores. This year harvests have been poor in some places, notably Australia, where the drought-hit wheat crop failed for the second year running. And world cereals stocks as a proportion of production are the lowest ever recorded. The run-down has been accentuated by the decision of large countries (America and China) to reduce stocks to save money.

Yet what is most remarkable about the present bout of “agflation” is that record prices are being achieved at a time not of scarcity but of abundance. According to the International Grains Council, a trade body based in London, this year’s total cereals crop will be 1.66 billion tonnes, the largest on record and 89m tonnes more than last year’s harvest, another bumper crop. That the biggest grain harvest the world has ever seen is not enough to forestall scarcity prices tells you that something fundamental is affecting the world’s demand for cereals.

The meat of the question

Two things, in fact. One is increasing wealth in China and India. This is stoking demand for meat in those countries, in turn boosting the demand for cereals to feed to animals. The use of grains for bread, tortillas and chapattis is linked to the growth of the world’s population. It has been flat for decades, reflecting the slowing of population growth. But demand for meat is tied to economic growth (see chart 1) and global GDP is now in its fifth successive year of expansion at a rate of 4%-plus.
Higher incomes in India and China have made hundreds of millions of people rich enough to afford meat and other foods. In 1985 the average Chinese consumer ate 20kg (44lb) of meat a year; now he eats more than 50kg. China’s appetite for meat may be nearing satiation, but other countries are following behind: in developing countries as a whole, consumption of cereals has been flat since 1980, but demand for meat has doubled.

Not surprisingly, farmers are switching, too: they now feed about 200m-250m more tonnes of grain to their animals than they did 20 years ago. That increase alone accounts for a significant share of the world’s total cereals crop. Calorie for calorie, you need more grain if you eat it transformed into meat than if you eat it as bread: it takes three kilograms of cereals to produce a kilo of pork, eight for a kilo of beef. So a shift in diet is multiplied many times over in the grain markets. Since the late 1980s an inexorable annual increase of 1-2% in the demand for feedgrains has ratcheted up the overall demand for cereals and pushed up prices.

Because this change in diet has been slow and incremental, it cannot explain the dramatic price movements of the past year. The second change can: the rampant demand for ethanol as fuel for American cars. In 2000 around 15m tonnes of America’s maize crop was turned into ethanol; this year the quantity is likely to be around 85m tonnes. America is easily the world’s largest maize exporter—and it now uses more of its maize crop for ethanol than it sells abroad.

Ethanol is the dominant reason for this year’s increase in grain prices. It accounts for the rise in the price of maize because the federal government has in practice waded into the market to mop up about one-third of America’s corn harvest. A big expansion of the ethanol programme in 2005 explains why maize prices started rising in the first place.

Ethanol accounts for some of the rise in the prices of other crops and foods too. Partly this is because maize is fed to animals, which are now more expensive to rear. Partly it is because America’s farmers, eager to take advantage of the biofuels bonanza, went all out to produce maize this year, planting it on land previously devoted to wheat and soyabeans. This year America’s maize harvest will be a jaw-dropping 335m tonnes, beating last year’s by more than a quarter. The increase has been achieved partly at the expense of other food crops.

This year the overall decline in stockpiles of all cereals will be about 53m tonnes—a very rough indication of by how much demand is outstripping supply. The increase in the amount of American maize going just to ethanol is about 30m tonnes. In other words, the demands of America’s ethanol programme alone account for over half the world’s unmet need for cereals. Without that programme, food prices would not be rising anything like as quickly as they have been. According to the World Bank, the grain needed to fill up an SUV would feed a person for a year.

America’s ethanol programme is a product of government subsidies. There are more than 200 different kinds, as well as a 54 cents-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol. That keeps out greener Brazilian ethanol, which is made from sugar rather than maize. Federal subsidies alone cost $7 billion a year (equal to around $1.90 a gallon).

In theory, what governments mandate, they can also scrap. But that seems unlikely with oil at the sort of price that makes them especially eager to promote alternative fuels. Subsidies might be trimmed, of course, reducing demand occasionally; this is happening a bit now. And eventually, new technologies to convert biomass to liquid fuel will replace ethanol—but that will take time. For the moment, support for the ethanol programme seems secure. Hillary Clinton and John McCain used to be against ethanol subsidies, but have changed their minds. Russia and Venezuela are not the only countries that like to meddle in food markets for political reasons.

So demand for grain will probably remain high for a while. Demand, though, is only one side of the equation. Supply forms the other. If there is a run of bumper harvests, prices will fall back; if not, they will stay high.

Harvests can rise only if new land is brought into cultivation or yields go up. This can happen fairly quickly. The world’s cereal farmers responded enthusiastically to price signals by planting more high-value crops. And so messed-up is much of the rich world’s farming systems that farmers in the West have often been paid not to grow crops—something that can easily be reversed, as happened this year when the European Union suspended the “set aside” part of its common agricultural policy. Still, there are limits to how much harvests can be expanded in the short term. In general, says a new report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which is financed by governments and development banks, the response tends to be sticky: a 10% rise in prices yields a 1-2% increase in supply.

In the longer run, plenty of new farmland could be ploughed up and many technological gains could be had. But much of the new land is in remote parts of Brazil, Russia, Kazakhstan, the Congo and Sudan: it would require big investments in roads and other infrastructure, which could take decades—and would often lead to the clearing of precious forest. Big gains could be had if genetically modified foods were brought into production or if new seed varieties were planted in Africa. But again, that will take time. Moreover, GM foods will not live up to their promise unless they shed the popular suspicion that dogs them, especially in Europe. And some of the new land—dry, marginal areas of Africa, Brazil and Kazakhstan—could be vulnerable to damage from global warming. By some measures, global warming could cut world farm output by as much as one-sixth by 2020. No less worryingly, high oil prices would depress the use of oil-based fertilisers, which have been behind much of the increase in farm production during the past half-century.

It is risky to predict long-run trends in farming—technology in particular always turns out unexpectedly—but most forecasters conclude from these conflicting currents that prices will stay high for as much as a decade. Because supplies will not match increases in demand, IFPRI believes, cereal prices will rise by between 10% and 20% by 2015. The UN‘s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s forecast for 2016-17 is slightly higher. Whatever the exact amount, this year’s agflation seems unlikely to be, as past rises have been, simply the upward side of a spike.
If prices do not fall back, this will mark a break with the past. For decades, prices of cereals and other foods have been in decline, both in the shops and on world markets. The IMF‘s index of food prices in 2005 was slightly lower than it had been in 1974, which means that in real terms food prices fell during those 30 years by three-quarters (see chart 2). In the 1960s food (including meals out) accounted for one-quarter of the average American’s spending; by 2005 the share was less than one-seventh.

In other words, were food prices to stay more or less where they are today, it would be a radical departure from a past in which shoppers and farmers got used to a gentle decline in food prices year in, year out. It would put an end to the era of cheap food. And its effects would be felt everywhere, but especially in countries where food matters most: poor ones.

A blessing and a curse

Guess who loses


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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