FAO Food Price Index highest ever – so where are the riots?

As if to mark the start of the new decade with an indication of what we can expect from it, the FAO’s Food Price Index has just surpassed its 2008 peak (it’s now at 214.7, compared to 213.8 in June 2008), putting it at its highest level since its launch in 1990. FAO is now warning of a new “food price shock” that could lead to a “food crisis”, and its senior economist Abdolreza Abbassian warns that “it will be foolish to assume this is the peak”.

But if the Index is at its highest ever level, why aren’t we seeing riots on the scale of 2008, when (according to the International Food Policy Research Institute – pdf), 61 countries experienced unrest, with protests turning violent in 23 of them? And should we expect to see the global total of undernourished people climb back over the one billion mark next time the UN figures are compiled?

A few things make this food spike different from the last one.

First, this one is – so far – about a somewhat different set of food commodities. Whereas the 2008 spike was heavily concentrated in key grains – rice, corn, wheat, soya – this one is being driven more by meat, sugar and vegetable oils, which are less fundamental as staple foods in low income countries. Admittedly, corn has been rising strongly too – but rice, in particular, has so far not spiked (it hit $1,000 a tonne in 2008; it’s at $535 a tonne today – see the FT graph below).

Second, many African and Asian countries have actually had good harvests over the last year. As the FT points out, “while the international export price for corn jumped 45 per cent between May and November [last year], it declined by up to 10 per cent in parts of Africa”. Part of the backstory here is how well many African countries have done at investing in their agriculture sectors since 2008, through programmes such as CAADP – an interesting datum to stir in to the argument over whether low income countries should scale up endogenous production capacity and seek to reduce their reliance on international markets to meet their needs.

Third, while oil prices are high at the moment (around $95 a barrel), they’re certainly not at their 2008 peak level of $147 a barrel – a factor that helped drive food prices much higher as costs rose for fertiliser, transportation, processing, on-farm energy use and so on. (On the subject of what drove the 2008 spike, incidentally, this new IFPRI report is worth a look – it raises a sceptical eyebrow at those who argue the role of biofuels in that spike was overstated.)

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, we haven’t yet seen a slide into panic measures that amplify the problem. The last food spike was a story in two acts, with the first part of the spike driven by fundamentals like rising demand for biofuels and the depreciation of the US dollar, and the second, steeper part of the spike driven in particular by export bans or restrictions imposed by over 30 countries. Although Russia imposed an export ban on wheat last summer, and India has recently restricted the export of some staple vegetables, we’re not in the trade meltdown scenario of 2008 – thankfully.

 But don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet. The oil price may well rise higher over the year ahead, as emerging economy growth continues to power onwards. Further depreciation in the dollar would be likely to increase commodity prices. And above all, don’t forget climate change. Extreme weather could cause poor countries’ food outlook to darken substantially this year – as Oxfam’s Gawain Kripke puts it, the latest rise in food prices is “a grave reminder that until we act on the underlying causes of hunger and climate change, we will find ourselves perpetually on the knife’s edge of disaster”.