Global food prices face a new surge

In Chicago wheat and rice prices for delivery in March 2008 have jumped to an all-time high, soyabean prices are at a 34-year high and corn prices at a 11-year peak. The agricultural commodities price rises are the result of high demand, poor harvests and low stockpiles of food.

Food prices in the UK are more than 5 per cent higher than a year ago. Bread prices have jumped 11.6 per cent over the last year, double the increase for cake or biscuits. Butter and eggs are about a third more expensive than last November, milk prices are 16.6 per cent higher and cheese is up 8.8 per cent.

Eurozone food price inflation was up to 4.3 per cent in November. It was one of the main reasons for the jump in the zone’s annual inflation rate from 2.6 per cent in October to 3.1 per cent, the highest level in six years. In the US, annual food price inflation of 4.8 per cent in November combined to a rise in the inflation rate to 4.3 per cent.

Deeper long-term economic influences are likely to have more influence on the future supply and demand of major food commodities and therefore on medium to lomg-term price levels, than the current boom in biofuel production. This is the main conclusion of a new report from the International Food Policy Institute: Food . One might add, however, that biofuel demand is more susceptible to the effects of policy initiatives, in particular over generous subsidies and tax reliefs.

The report points out that while overall world economic growth is likely to remain in the 4 per cent a year average range, growth in the developing countries with expanding food demand is expected to average 6 per cent a year well into the next decade. IFPRI points out that of the world’s most food insecure countries, which have the greatest propensity to import food, twenty-two had average annual growth rates ranging from 5 per cent to 16 per cent between 2004 and 2006.

What IFPRI characterises as ‘diet globalisation’ is also a major long-term demand changing factor. More affluent city-dwelling Asian consumers are increasingly seeking non-traditional foods. This is leading to reduced rice consumption and increased consumption of wheat and wheat-based products, temperate-zone vegetables and dairy products – and increases in demand for animal feeds for the livestock producing many of these foods.

One by-product of rising food prices is that import tariffs for agricultural commodities, in paricular cereals, vegetable oils and rice, are being slashed in an effort by developed and developing countries to cushion their local markets against rising food inflation. On the other hand, export tariffs have been raised by several key exporting countries such as Argentina in an attempt to keep local markets well supplied.

Given that the rise in food prices is not likely to be a short-term phenomenon, one might question why the commercial aspects of farming continue to require subsidy.

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