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Grain and poverty, Russia and India, yet another UN talkfest, and those damned bankers

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Many young male adults have left their villages in search of subsistance means after the poor raining season in 2009 prevented them from harvesting. In the village of Garin Dagabi, north of Tanout in Southern Niger, the population at the beginning of 2010 was mainly made of old people, women and children. Photo: © Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN

Many young male adults in Southern Niger have left their villages in search of subsistance means after the poor raining season in 2009 prevented them from harvesting. Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN

At the United Nations headquarters in New York, USA, a large gathering of country representatives and other interested folks is the signal that another interminable, obfuscatory, filibustering, mostly spineless and generally pointless meeting is under way.

It is called the 19th Session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. The well-coiffeured ladies, impeccably suited gentlemen, minor potentates and ‘development’ celebrities there will be arguing endlessly about the grammar and construction of the declarations they finalise so as to ensure that no-one commits to anything and that they all meet again as soon as possible to check on their progress at doing nothing noisily.

Naturally, they are beatifically unconcerned about nuisances such as rising food prices and crippling food inflation all over the world. If you want to punish yourself by wading through portentous paragraphs of high-minded gibberish, and get a taste of the UN’s legendary core competency – wasting our money on pomp and prolix puffery – go here.

Now that we can see the difference between the posers at UN HQ and the rest of the toiling masses, here are some indicators of the way the world food, agriculture and prices are moving in the summer of 2011.

Agriculture in Africa. Photo: FAOThe Wall Street Journal has said that expectations of surplus grain in Russia and India are driving speculation that the two producers might resume exports, as wheat prices soar. But deteriorating prospects for US and European wheat crops mean even the return of exports from Russia and India to world markets this year would be unlikely to lower prices.

Grain dealers in Russia are starting to move stocks to ports in the hope that the government will allow exports as early as July. The Kremlin banned exports last year after the worst drought in a century slashed Russia’s grain harvest by about a third to about 63 million metric tons, but hopes that farmers may reap as much as 90 million tons this year have prompted calls for an end to the embargo.

Even if the exports from these producers happen, said the WSJ report, they are unlikely to make up for a fall in output in the US and Europe. The impact of weather on wheat supplies has been fueling prices for the past 10 months, with the latest concerns about dryness stressing crops in the ground and excessive rainfall hindering planting in the world’s two largest exporters. Wheat prices have rallied more than 60% on the Chicago Board of Trade since June 30.

Thou Market, southern Sudan. Across the Sahel, women generate income from balanites seeds, which are about half oil and a third protein. After processing at home, they can be turned into many tasty items, including roasted snacks and a spread not unlike peanut butter. They also supply a vegetable oil that is a prized ingredient in foods as well as in local cosmetics. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Caroline Gullick)

Thou Market, southern Sudan. Across the Sahel, women generate income from balanites seeds, which are about half oil and a third protein. After processing at home, they can be turned into many tasty items, including roasted snacks and a spread not unlike peanut butter. They also supply a vegetable oil that is a prized ingredient in foods as well as in local cosmetics. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Caroline Gullick)

World rice production is forecast to rise 3% this year, according to a Bloomberg report quoting the FAOs’ Rice Market Monitor. This is based on expected better weather and government support for farmers. The 2011 rice harvest is estimated to climb to 720 million metric tons from 699 million tons, or 480 million tons on a milled basis compared with 466 million tons a year earlier, the FAO has said in report. Price gains for rice, a staple for half the world, have trailed those of other grains. Thai grade-B white rice has gained 6% in the past 12 months, compared with a 56% gain for Chicago wheat prices.

A business report in the Huffington Post highlights the conclusions of a very readable piece of journalism in the magazine Foreign Policy (written there by Frederick Kaufman). The primary danger of the indexes is that they fundamentally alter the food market by transforming key stapes into a financial asset that performs more or less like a stock. “The money tells the story,” the Foreign Policy article explained. “Since the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, there has been a 50-fold increase in dollars invested in commodity index funds. To put the phenomenon in real terms: In 2003, the commodities futures market still totaled a sleepy $13 billion. But when the global financial crisis sent investors running scared in early 2008, and as dollars, pounds, and euros evaded investor confidence, commodities — including food — seemed like the last, best place for hedge, pension, and sovereign wealth funds to park their cash… In the first 55 days of 2008, speculators poured $55 billion into commodity markets, and by July, $318 billion was roiling the markets. Food inflation has remained steady since.”

In a report titled ‘Food Price Hike Worsens Poverty in Asia’, IPS news has reported that an annual meeting of Asian finance ministers and central bank governors in Hanoi is set to address the fate of 64 million people in the region on the brink of extreme poverty. They are the worst affected by soaring food prices, which have hit record highs in the first two months of this year. “The issue of food price inflation and food security will indeed be one of the key topics of discussion at the Asian Development Bank’s 44th annual meeting,” says Xianbin Yao, director general of the regional and sustainable development department at the Manila-based international financial institution. “(We hope) to focus our discussions on the long term structural adjustments that are needed to secure food supplies.

“If left unchecked, the food crisis will badly undermine the recent gains in poverty reduction made in Asia,” he said in an interview to IPS. “We estimate that a 10% rise in domestic food prices in developing Asia could push an additional 64 million people into poverty, based on the 1.25 (dollar) a day poverty line.” In a report released ahead of the annual meeting in the Vietnamese capital, to be held May 3-6, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) warned that this ascent of prices among many Asian food staples is “likely to continue” a threat to the continent’s nearly two billion people who live on less than two dollars a day.

From miscalculation to emergency, the wheat crisis of 2010

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Wheat trade, CBOT

Wheat trade on the CBOT, 2009 April to 2010 September. Chart from CME

The wheat supply and price crisis from June 2010 onwards has meant that consumers, producers and food industry processors are now struggling with price increases of as much as 90%. The wheat problem of 2010-11 is lurching from crisis to miscalculation to emergency at all scales. And even then, some big international commodities traders are counting windfall profits.

In the first week of August, Reuters reported that Russia’s worst drought on record has devastated crops in parts of the country and caused international grain prices to spike as markets placed bets that without shipments from one of the world’s leading exporters, global supplies would be restricted. Soon thereafter, Bloomberg reported that the share prices of US agricultural companies including Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto and Potash Corp of Saskatchewan rose in New York trading amid speculation that US wheat exports will jump as importers seek alternatives to Russian grain.

According to the average estimate of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will forecast that global wheat stockpiles before the 2011 harvest will drop to 171.09 million metric tons, from 193.97 million tons a year earlier. That will be smaller than the USDA’s 174.76 million ton estimate last month. The USDA has cut its estimates every month since May, when it predicted stockpiles at 198 million tons.

Photo: USDA, Amber Waves, 2010 SeptemberFarmers in Russia, the world’s third-largest wheat grower last season, lost between 50% and 60% percent of crops in the drought-stricken central and Volga River regions this year, Deputy Agriculture Minister Sergei Korolyov has told a conference in Moscow.

The Russian government’s ban left some of the world’s largest wheat importers scrambling to secure alternative supplies. Typically, Cargill, one of the world’s biggest grain agglomerators and foodgrain logistics companies, attacked Russia’s ban, saying that this amounted to “trade barriers”. Cargill’s cynical and profit-driven reaction indicates the rush to profit from what is clearly a foodgrains disaster in Central Asia and which has major implications for foodgrains importing countries in developing Africa and Asia.

Wheat trade, CBOT

Wheat trade on the CBOT, 2010 June to 2010 September. Chart from CME

Still, over a 3-6 month period, rising wheat prices will probably pinch foodgrains suppliers (who also take powerful positions in the international agricultural commodities trade) because they have signed contracts to supply wheat at lower prices than are prevailing in September. But, since the beginning of July 2010, wheat prices have jumped straight up. Increasing demand from important regions of the world and other supply problems beyond Russia’s drought, such as floods in Canada, crop failure in Ukraine and foodgrains storage and movement problems in India will substantially add to the 2010-11 global wheat crisis.

The uncertainty has also spread to corn. Reuters has reported crop forecaster Informa Economics stating that the USDA report will show the corn yield at 164.8 bushels per acre, below the USDA’s August estimate of 165 bushels. Informa also told clients that the USDA’s final yield estimate for 2010 was likely to be significantly lower at 158.5 bushels per acre. Informa’s estimate of the USDA’s likely final yield count helped propel Chicago Board of Trade corn futures to their highest level in nearly two years.

Photo: USDA, Amber Waves, 2010 SeptemberEarlier last month (August 2010) the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) monthly report, which provides USDA’s comprehensive forecasts of supply and demand for major global crops, said that global wheat supplies for 2010-11 are “reduced sharply with world production lowered 15.3 million tons, mostly on reductions for FSU-12 (former Societ Union) and EU-27 (European Union) countries”. It said production for Russia is lowered 8.0 million tons as continued extreme drought and record heat during July and early August have further reduced summer crop prospects. Kazakhstan production is lowered 2.5 million tons reflecting the same adverse weather conditions as in Russia. Ukraine production is lowered 3.0 million tons as heavy summer rains damaged maturing crops and hampered harvesting in western and southern growing areas.

WASDE also said EU-27 production is “lowered 4.3 million tons with yields reduced for northwestern Europe on untimely heat and dryness”. Yields are lowered for southeastern Europe as heavy rains from the same weather pattern that affected Ukraine reduced output. Production is also lowered for Algeria, Brazil, Uruguay, Belarus, and Croatia. Partially offsetting are increases for India, the United States, Australia, and Uzbekistan.