Paul Walker on food prices

Paul Walker takes a long hard look at the causes of global food inflation. He looks at the three theories:

  1. Newspapers have cited an internal World Bank document as having found that 75% of the price increase was due to biofuels
  2. Several governments and commentators see speculation as a major driving force.
  3. Widely held view has it that rapidly growing food demand in the emerging economies is pushing up global food prices.

So how does theory 2 hold up:

Yet, there is no hard evidence that “speculation” has added much to the price increase on spot markets. After all, it is only when “speculators” actually buy produce on the spot market that they can drive up the price, and this would have to be reflected in growing stock levels – but stocks appear to have declined throughout the period of rising prices

So how about theory 3 – blame China and India:

Food demand in China, India, and other emerging economies is rising as their incomes grow. However, domestic food production in most of these countries is growing in parallel. China, for example, has been a consistent and growing net exporter of cereals (including rice). The Agricultural Outlook expects China’s net cereals exports to decline only very gradually in the coming decade. For India, the picture is similar, though there was significant variability in its net trade position in the past. In short, growing food demand in the major emerging countries cannot be held responsible for the rise in world market prices for cereals.

So that leaves theory 1 – biofuels:

The use of agricultural products, in particular maize, wheat, and vegetable oil, as feedstock for biofuel production has expanded dramatically in recent years. Between 2005 and 2007, i.e. in the period when food prices began to explode, nearly 60% of the growth in global consumption of cereals and vegetable oils was due to biofuels. Global output of cereals and vegetable oil did not decline during that period, but just grew slower than the rapid expansion of use.

In a situation of depleted stocks and very low demand and supply elasticities, this gap between use and output growth has pushed prices up very strongly.

And the conclusion:

Thus we find that there cannot be much in the way of doubt that biofuels are a significant factor in the rise of worldwide food prices. Add to this the fact that other research suggests that biofuel support policies are disappointingly ineffective on environmental grounds, then it should be clear that governments need to reconsider their support for biofuels. But many governments, including New Zealand’s, seem to want to push ahead with such policies despite the kind of evidence Tangermann brings to bear on the issue.

Stefan Tangermann, quoted by Walker, is Director of Trade and Agriculture for the OECD.

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