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”.

Food spike 2.0 – what you need to know (updated)

The FT’s big front page splash today (“Fears grow over global food supply“) has sent a ripple of interest through the wider media – expect to hear a lot about the issue on the broadcast media over the course of the day. So is this a repeat of 2008? In a word, no – though it could yet become one, and even if it doesn’t, we need to regard this as a wake-up call. Here’s a quick summary.

What’s going on? Wheat prices are soaring. A year ago, a tonne of wheat cost €141; today, it costs €231, and most of the rise has happened over the last few weeks. Meanwhile, meat prices have hit their highest level in 20 years. The overall FAO Food Price Index rose 5% during August, and is back to where it was in late autumn 2007 (when the food price spike was well underway) – though it’s still some way off its peak during summer 2008.

So why are prices rising? For wheat, the main driver has been adverse weather – principally in Russia, but also in parts of the EU, Kazakhstan, Australia and Ukraine. The effect has been compounded by export restrictions, again with Russia (which has banned wheat exports outright) the main driver. On meat, the issue’s more to do with demand (especially in emerging economies, where people are increasingly shifting to meat-rich ‘western diets’) – though the supply side has also lagged.

But why the sudden spike in media coverage? Media interest has stepped up over the last 24 hours because of two things that just happened: a food price riot in Mozambique that left 7 dead, and Russia’s announcement that it will extend its export ban on wheat for 12 months.

Is this 2008 all over again? No. Despite the adverse weather in Russia and other countries, the world as a whole is on course for a bumper crop this year – the third highest on record, according to the International Grains Council. Stock levels are also much more comfortable than they were in 2008, providing more of a buffer. And the 2008 food spike was greatly amplified by a concurrent oil price spike (reaching $147 at the top), which made food more expensive by upping fertiliser, energy and transport costs, as well as making it more attractive to put crops into biofuels. Today, by contrast, oil is at $76 – still high, by historical standards, but a long way off 2008 levels.

So there’s nothing to worry about? No, that’s not the case either. The situation could still get a lot more serious – if more harvests get damaged by extreme weather, if price bubbles develop through investors going long on futures markets, if the oil price starts rising, or if more countries start implementing export bans or restrictions.

Looking to the longer term – with food demand forecast to rise 50% by 2030, even as trends like water scarcity, climate change, intensifying energy security risks and competition for land constrain supply growth – there are strong reasons to think that 2008 wasn’t “just a blip”.

Most of all, remember that for many poor people, the food price spike didn’t end in 2008. The number of undernourished people in the world was 850m before the food spike; today, it’s over a billion – not surprising, when you reflect how high food prices have been since then by historical standards (again, see the FAO Food Price Index), or on the fact that poor people typically spend 50-80% of their household income on food.

So what do we need to do? See The Feeding of the Nine Billion for a full answer to this – but the short answer is, a) invest in a 21st Century Green Revolution that produces more food, more sustainably, more resiliently, and in a way that works for small farmers; b) scale up targeted social protection systems to protect people like the ones rioting in Maputo (and which make a lot more sense than price controls or economy-wide subsidies); c) start getting serious about making international agricultural trade more resilient, especially through better crisis management mechanisms and probably including new rules against sudden export restrictions; and d) do a serious global deal on climate change. And get a move on. Continue reading