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Price increases fuel fears of food ‘crises’

June 16, 2010

By Javier Blas in London | Financial Times

Published: June 15 2010 18:51 | Last updated: June 15 2010 18:51

Food commodity prices will increase more than previously expected in the next decade because of rising energy prices and developing countries’ rapid growth, two leading organisations said on Tuesday, worsening the outlook for global food security.

“A return to higher global economic growth . . .  together with continuing population gains, are expected to increase demand and trade and underpin prices,” the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said in their annual agricultural outlook.

Higher crude oil prices would add force to rising agricultural commodities prices, particularly in those regions – including Europe and the US – where energy inputs such as fertilisers were used intensively, said the report.

For the next 10 years the FAO and OECD forecast that significant food prices, with the exception of pork, would remain above the 1996-2007 average, in both nominal and real terms – adjusted for inflation. Although prices were unlikely to surge back to the record levels of early 2008, they warned that “if history is any guide, further episodes of strong price fluctuations . . . cannot be ruled out, nor can future short-lived crises”.

Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the OECD, said all indications pointed to a “period of high prices”, although these would be below the peaks of the 2007-08 food crisis when prices spiked to record levels, triggering riots in countries from Bangladesh to Haiti.

The forecast of high prices is likely to exacerbate concerns about global food security. Since the food crisis, and the number of chronically hungry people surging above the 1bn mark last year, agriculture has drawn more attention from policymakers – particularly in the US. The OECD earlier this year organised its first ministerial meeting on agriculture for 12 years.

The prospect of higher prices could prompt those nations dependent on food imports – such as Saudi Arabia and South Korea – to try to secure long-term food supplies by accelerating their investment in overseas agriculture in so-called “farmland grabs”. Mr Gurría said some food-importing nations felt “strategically vulnerable” about their agricultural commodities supplies, but added it was critical to avoid “a race for [food] self-sufficiency”.

Developing countries would provide the main source of growth for world agricultural production, consumption and trade, said the report.

“As incomes rise, diets are expected to slowly diversify away from staple foods towards increased meats and processed foods,” it said. In turn, with increasing affluence and an expanding middle class, food consumption in developing countries would become less responsive to price and income changes.

In real terms, the report projected cereal prices to rise around 15-40 per cent relative to the 1997-2006 average, up from last year’s forecast of 10-20 per cent. Vegetable oils are expected to be more than 40 per cent higher, against last year’s forecast of a 30 per cent increase. Meat and dairy products will also be more expensive in the next decade, reversing last year’s forecast that pointed to lower prices.

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