January 12, 2011

The Food Bubble

Tom Philpott summarizes Lester Brown's analysis of the "food bubble" as follows: "we've puffed up grain production by burning through unsustainable amounts of three finite resources: water, fossil fuels, and topsoil. At some point, . . . the bubble has to burst."

The crisis is especially severe in India and China: "India has essentially tapped out the water table in its main agricultural regions since embracing industrial agriculture in the 1970s." In China, "130 million people owe their sustenance to 'grain produced by overpumping groundwater.'"

There is more on the international food crisis in Brown's latest book, World on the Edge, from which this presentation is culled.

Here are three arresting charts from that presentation. The first shows the consequence of depleted acquifers for wheat production in Saudi Arabia.

Lots of countries, Brown argues, have been depleting their acquifers, resulting in "water-based food bubbles"

World food stocks are back to the levels that produced the sharp price rises of 2008 and the 1970s. (The earlier decade saw "the great grain robbery," when the Soviet Union bought up on the sly a huge amount of the American grain harvest, before prices exploded.)

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports (Jan 12, 2011) that the world moves closer to a food price shock:  

The world has moved a step closer to a food price shock after the US government surprised traders by cutting stock forecasts for key crops, sending corn and soyabean prices to their highest level in 30 months.

The price jump comes after the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation warned last week that the world could see repetition of the 2008 food crisis if prices rose further. The trend is becoming a major concern in developing countries.

While officials are drawing comfort from stable rice prices, key for feeding Asia, they warn that a sustained period of high prices, especially in grains such as wheat, would hit poorer countries. Food price hikes have already led to riots in Algeria and Mozambique.

“Stocks of corn and soyabean are at incredibly tight levels ... and the markets are surging to incredibly strong prices,” Chad Hart, agricultural economist at Iowa State University, said.

Dan Basse, president of AgResource, a Chicago-based forecaster, added: “There’s just no room for error any more. With any kind of weather problem in the upcoming growing season we will make new all-time highs in corn and soy, and to a lesser degree wheat futures.”

Agricultural traders and analysts warn that the latest revision to US and global stocks means there is no further room for weather problems. The crops in Argentina and Brazil, to be harvested soon, look fragile due to dryness.

Traders are particularly concerned about the cost of vegetable oil, key for developing countries such as China where an emerging middle class is buying more frying oil. The US Department of Agriculture said the ratio of global stocks-to-demand would fall later this year to “levels unseen since the mid-1970s, reflecting an accelerated pace of vegetable oil” consumption for food and fuel.

In Chicago, the price of soyabeans rose as much as 5.2 per cent to $14.20½ a bushel, the highest since late 2008. The USDA said that domestic stocks-to-demand would drop to the lowest point in nearly half a century.
See further Sandra Postel, "Groundwater Depletion Raises Likelihood of Global Food Crises," National Geographic, September 27, 2010

Lester Brown, "The Great Food Crisis of 2011," Foreign Policy, January-February 2011

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