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Three conclusions for agricultural commodities, says European Commission

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A Syrian family receives food aid at a WFP distribution point. Photo: WFP/John Wreford

A Syrian family receives food aid at a WFP distribution point. Photo: WFP/John Wreford

Here’s the latest punditry from the European Commission.

“Despite remaining uncertainties, based on the outlook for agricultural commodities established by several organisations, including the latest Commission medium term projections, three conclusions are clear for agricultural commodities:

  • Agricultural commodity prices  are expected to stay higher than their historical averages, reversing their long-term downward trend, at least for the foreseeable future.
  • Price volatility is also expected to remain high, although uncertainties with respect to its causes and duration persist.
  • The level of input prices used in agriculture is also likely to remain higher than its historical trends.”

These three conclusions are contained in the document, ‘Tackling the Challenges in Commodity Markets and on Raw Materials’, issued as a Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. (These Eurocrats need urgent lessons in how to be brief and clear.)

The ‘Communication’ has also said:

“While higher global prices could stimulate  agricultural production, price transmission mechanisms are often imperfect. In many developing countries, commodity markets are often disconnected from world markets or, at best, world price signals are transmitted to domestic markets with considerable lags so that a domestic supply response is often delayed. Several analyses by the Food and Agricultural Organisation, OECD, Commission and others have focused on supply and demand developments, exacerbated by short-term economic and policy factors (including restrictions on exports) that explain part of the observed extreme price volatility, including factors specific to financial markets that may have amplified price changes.”

A food crisis in northern Burundi’s Kirundo province – the result of failed rains – has prompted many women to make a long daily commute to neighbouring Rwanda, where a day’s work in a field earns them just enough money to feed their family for a day. Photo: IRIN/Judith Basutama

A food crisis in northern Burundi’s Kirundo province – the result of failed rains – has prompted many women to make a long daily commute to neighbouring Rwanda, where a day’s work in a field earns them just enough money to feed their family for a day. Photo: IRIN/Judith Basutama

There are several errors in this statement. One, in many developing countries, commodity markets are extremely closely tied to world markets quite simply because they are buying staple foodgrain from world markets. Two, domestic supply responses are not delayed – the structural adjustment in agriculture is preventing them from taking place. Three, the “restrictions on exports” mantra is being repeated as often as possible by all multilateral development banks (World Bank, IMF, ADB, IADB, AfDB) and by financial markets and commodities analysts who collaborate to spread this misinformation. Four, why are the “factors specific to financial markets” not spelt out?

“The combination of the above factors implies that higher prices for agricultural commodities will not necessarily result in higher incomes for farmers, especially if their margins are squeezed by increased costs. In addition, potential problems for net food importing countries and more generally for the most vulnerable  consumers are evident, stemming from price impacts on food inflation. While a certain degree  of variability is an intrinsic part of agricultural markets, excessive volatility does not benefit producers neither users.”

The contradictions between what the EU thinks it ought to say to the finance + markets constituency and what it thinks it ought to say to critics of neo-lineral economics at home is clear from this paragraph. The EU is admitting there is a profiterring taking place between the higher prices for agri commodities and the “not necessarily” higher incomes for farmers. Higher costs are mentioned too. Food importing countries have “potential problems’! (Seriously, are the people who wrote this completely unaware of the events in North Africa and the reasons behind them?)

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