Sunday, 9 September 2012


As fuel prices creep upwards, as we are waiting to get hit by price rises from the energy cartel, the next hard blow to our wallets will come in the form of rising food prices. The poor summer across the northern hemisphere (either too wet or too dry) is impacting on global food prices which have risen by 10% in the month of July, which has raised the fears of soaring prices for the planet's poorest, as noted by the World Bank.

Oxfam has noted that when extreme weather events drive local or regional price spikes, the people living in poverty face a double shock as they have to cope with higher prices, just like the rest of us. The difference between the developed and developing world is that this often comes at a time when the direct effects of extreme weather events have often already depleted their assets, destroyed their crops and stripped them of their livelihoods.

Back in 2011 the emergency in the Horn of Africa and the 2012 Sahel food crisis clearly showed how this combination can lead to hunger on a mass scale. The small-scale subsistence farmers and the pastoralists ended up getting hit hard in both regions, where the loss of livestock and crops reduced available food stocks and also reduced the value of people’s assets so that they were unable to afford to buy food

The World Bank has warned that the affects of the US heat wave and drought in parts of Eastern Europe were partly to blame for the rising food costs. Key grains such as corn, wheat and soybean saw the most dramatic price increases, something that will hit those countries that import grains particularly badly. Between June to July (2012), corn and wheat prices rose by 25% and soybean prices increased by 17%. The World Bank noted that only rice prices fell by some 4%.

In the USA, the worst (and widespread) drought for fifty years has wrought havoc on the corn and soybean crops while simultaneously in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the wheat crops have been badly damaged. To make matters worse, the World Bank noted that the continued use of corn to produce ethanol biofuels (which absorbs around 40% of US corn production) played a key role in the sharp rise in the price of US maize.

While we (the food consumers) will all loses out, the impact on developing countries in North and Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East who will be the most exposed to price rises because significant quantities of their food is imported and food bills make up a large proportion of average household spending, will be harsher. .

Already maize prices had increased by 113% over the past quarter in Mozambique, and the price of sorghum had risen 220% in South Sudan. Last time this happened (back in 2008) there was widespread unrest. Other potential factors could make a potentially bad situation worse and force grain prices still higher. The World Bank is concerned about a combination of food exporters pursuing panic policies, a severe El Nino, poor Southern hemisphere harvests and strong increases in energy prices.

The World Bank's Food Price Index (which tracks the price of internationally traded food commodities) was six percent higher than in July 2011 and one percent up from the previous peak, which was back in February 2011. Why is this important? Well aside from the fact that the most vulnerable in poorer countries will lose out? While we won’t starve, in the developed world as food (and fuel) prices go up, our purchasing power goes down (and we spend less), something that will hit the wider economy.

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