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Why the FAO food index is also an oil gauge

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The revealing relationship between the FAO cereals price sub-index, the OPEC Reference Basket price of a barrel of crude oil, and the Baltic Dry Index (right scale).

The revealing relationship between the FAO cereals price sub-index, the OPEC Reference Basket price of a barrel of crude oil, and the Baltic Dry Index (right scale).

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN has released its food price index data and commentary for 2014 October. This would be of considerable interest if only the index described the tendencies of food prices as experienced by consumers. Alas FAO’s food price index, as we have remarked upon several times in the past, pays no attention to the true cost of food staples.

Of what use is the FAO index, which is used as a reference by any government (and UN member state) to judge the value of its food exports (or to judge whether when importing grain it is paying what seems to be a fair price)? In the first place, the index (which itself is composed of separately calculated cereal, vegetable oil, dairy, meat and sugar indices) is not a consumer food price index.

The FAO food price index and its component sub-indices for the period 2012 January to 2014 October. A general downward trend, says the FAO, but this is the picture for international food trade and not consumer food retail price.

The FAO food price index and its component sub-indices for the period 2012 January to 2014 October. A general downward trend, says the FAO, but this is the picture for international food trade and not consumer food retail price.

The FAO has not claimed it is, but neither has the agency clearly and plainly said it is not. It should, because financial and general interest media all over the world report the ups and downs of this index as if it portrays how local food prices move, and of course it does not.

The FAO index is used by international traders whose business it is to buy and sell food staples (including cereal, vegetable oil, pulses, dairy, meat and sugar). Perhaps some of them use it as a benchmark while others forecast trends from its sub-indices. It may be used to validate the accuracy of a particular kind of agricultural commodity futures index, and help judge whether an investment in the production of food, its movement, its stocking or its trade is going to be a good investment or not. As you can gather, it is not an index that consumers can use, because consumers are local and this is assuredly not.

What pulls the FAO food price index up, down or sideways? There are two important factors at work on the main index. One is the price of petroleum products, the other is the cost of moving grain (or any other food staple). You may assess the short or long-term trend of the food index against the current or projected price of Brent crude (preferred in Europe), West Texas Intermediate (preferred in the USA) or the OPEC reference price (preferred almost everywhere else).

The FAO food price index and its component sub-indices for 2014 till October. The downward trend of the last six months, which the FAO commentary is faintly praising, mirrors the trend of crude oil prices over the same period.

The FAO food price index and its component sub-indices for 2014 till October. The downward trend of the last six months, which the FAO commentary is faintly praising, mirrors the trend of crude oil prices over the same period.

And then you will assess what the food price index describes against the cost of moving a large quantity of the agricultural commodity to be traded across an ocean, for which the Baltic Dry Index will be consulted.

[If you are a trader and want the FAO food price data and movements, go here. The usual commentary can be found: “The FAO Food Price Index averaged 192.3 points in October 2014, marginally (0.2 percent) below the revised September figure but 14.3 points (6.9 percent) short of its corresponding level one year ago” and so on.]

To help determine what the FAO food price index is depicting, I have made charts for the index (and sub-indices) for the period 2012 January to 2014 October; for the index (and sub-indices) for 2014 till October; a chart that shows the FAO cereals sub-index together with the OPEC Reference Basket Price for a barrel of crude oil and the Baltic Dry Index (this is the shipping index most commonly referred to for the movement of dry goods by sea) for the period 2012 January to 2014 October; and a chart that plots the changes (from month to month) in the three indexes taken together (FAO Cereals, OPEC Reference and Baltic Dry).

The FAO food price index and the OPEC Reference Basket price of oil have much more in common than the Baltic Dry Index, which has swung with volatility since 2012 January.

The FAO food price index and the OPEC Reference Basket price of oil have much more in common than the Baltic Dry Index, which has swung with volatility since 2012 January.

What they describe can be found in the captions, but it becomes clear from a glance at the FAO-OPEC-Baltic charts that the food price as calculated by FAO has very much more to do with how energy is used to produce food staples (that is, the use of petroleum products directly, and the use of fossil fuels-derived energy) and how energy is used to transport, store, process, transport it again and retail it.

I see it as an index that describes the energy quotient of industrially produced food staples, and so it has little if anything to do with any other form of agriculture, in particular the smallholder, family-oriented and organic agriculture that the FAO advertises its concern about.

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Indexing food prices the FAO way

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The FAO food price index for 2013 October which includes the calculation and measurement changes. Spot the differences? I can't.

The FAO food price index for 2013 October which includes the calculation and measurement changes. Spot the differences? I can’t.

Why has the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) changed the way it calculates the monthly FAO Food Price Index? But hold on, let us scrutinise first what the FAO Food Price Index is for 2013 October.

The FAO has said: “The FAO Food Price Index rose slightly in October, averaging 205.8 points. This was 2.7 points, or 1.3% above September, but still 11 points, or 5.3% below its October 2012 value. The slight increase was largely driven by a surge in sugar prices, although prices of the other commodity groups were also up.”

The usual blue pair.

The usual blue pair.

In substance, this sort of commentary for the FAO monthly food price index barely differs from the standard tedious template, in tone and tenor, that FAO has applied throughout 2013. The tone has been, as we begin to close 2013, that food prices have not moved very much through the year, and the tenor has been that food price volatility is being reined in.

Based on the evidence provided by real prices I experience in India – real markets (or bazaars or mandis) in which real vendors sell actual produce to real household buyers – I have no idea what the FAO Food Price Index is talking about. Nor do tens of millions of urban and rural households all over the world when they try and correlate the numbers of the FAO index to what they must confront every time they make a food purchase.

This is because of what the FAO Food Price Index measures which, I wearily point out, is a criticism levelled time and again. Why call it a food price index when it is in fact a food exporters’ and importers’ price indication?

Impressive equations, but where's the connection with the local markets you and me buy our veggies from?

Impressive equations, but where’s the connection with the local markets you and me buy our veggies from?

Now, with a change in its calculations, the FAO index includes the following 23 commodities: wheat (10 price quotations monitored and reported by the International Grains Council), maize (1 quotation) and rice (16 quotations) for cereals; butter, whole milk powder, skimmed milk powder (2 quotations for each) and cheese (1 quotation) for the dairy group; poultry (13 quotations), pig (6 quotations), bovine (7 quotations) and ovine (1 quotation) for the meat dairy group; sugar (1 quotation); the oils group consists of one oil price quotation for soybean, sunflower, rapeseed, groundnut, cotton seed, copra, palm kernel, palm, linseed and castor. This construction, thus, includes the use of 73 price series.

The FAO has said: “The Index, which is a measure of the monthly change in international prices of five major food commodity groups (including 73 price quotations), has undergone some changes in the way it is calculated, although the new approach did not significantly alter the values in the series.” (See the Food Outlook released in 2013 November.)

Perhaps. We will not know for another few months. If a change was needed that made sense to consuming households, then FAO should have ensured the index reflected what households pay for the food the buy in the markets near their homes. If the FAO must serve multiple audiences, then it must devise food price indexes for these audiences separately (but the IGC already serves the food traders, and FAO’s own Agricultural Market Information System already serves the policymakers and the major international blocs).

A Jekyll and Hyde food price index

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FAO's usual winsome twosome, the food price index and food commodity price index charts.

FAO’s usual winsome twosome, the food price index and food commodity price index charts.

Why does the perversity of international food price monitoring continue when all evidence tells us food price inflation is raging just as it was in 2007-08? Here is an example of how persistent this perversity is.

Maize in Malawi at 280%, maize in Tanzania at 110%, maize in Mozambique at 60%, maize in Zambia at 50%. Wheat in Tajikistan and in Russia at 55%, wheat in Kyrgystan and Afghanistan at 40%, rice in Myanmar at 35%. Maize in Haiti at 55%, maize in Honduras at 40%, wheat and rice in Brazil at 30%, maize in Nicaragua at 30%, rice in Bolivia at 25%.

Those are the annual increases in the prices of these cereals in the countries named. The estimates come from the charts found in the FAO Global Food Price Monitor for 2013 May (which has prices for up to April). The charts however are at the end of the Monitor. On the first page, the Monitor offers very short summaries. Like this one:

“In Eastern Africa, maize prices mostly strengthened for the second consecutive month following seasonable patterns. However, prices stabilized or started to decline in some countries where new harvests are about to start.” Is that what is being described with a 110% increase in Tanzania?

Or this one:

“In Asia, domestic prices of rice and wheat generally weakened with the arrival of the 2013 early season rice and winter wheat harvests.” Is that what is being described with a 35% increase in Myanmar?

Or even this one:

What FAO's own charts tell us about rising food prices for staples worldwide. These are from the FAO Global Food Price Monitor for 2013 May.

What FAO’s own charts tell us about rising food prices for staples worldwide. These are from the FAO Global Food Price Monitor for 2013 May.

“In Central America, maize prices strengthened in April with the onset of the lean season and in some countries were at high levels. Bean prices remained low, pressured by abundant supplies from bumper crops in the 2012-13 cropping season.” Is that what is being described with a 40% increase in Honduras?

Who are these summaries really for and why does FAO persist in releasing to the public these misleading pictures of food prices (when it means export prices), and especially when its own price monitoring tools tell us very clearly that many many people are struggling under crushing inflation in the prices of food staples?

To take the food price opera further, this is what the FAO Food Price Indexwhich is one of the world’s primary indices and referred to thousands of times a day by planners, the food industry, policy-makers, bankers (always bankers), commodity traders, foreign exchange brokers, bond market artists and rogues, warehousing tycoons, the purveyors of genetically modified seed, the cigar-smoking CEOs of grain trading companies, and the smarmy corrupt political cronies of all of the above – says about cereals:

“The FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 234.6 points in April, down 10 points (4.1%) from March, but nearly 11 points (4.9%) above the corresponding period last year. Most of the decline in April was triggered by weaker maize prices on expectation of higher closing stocks and favourable 2013 crop prospects. Wheat prices changed little, as the downward pressure stemming from expectation of larger inventories was offset by the upward pressure resulting from concern over the poor growing conditions and spring crop planting delays in the United States. Rice prices were marginally down …”

Read that again, 4.9% above the corresponding period last year. The smallest of the annual percentage increases in the second paragraph of this posting is five times as much as 4.9% which is why we must ask FAO, again and again, who the beneficiaries of this large international effort to collect and distribute food prices really are.

Not the populations of Mzuzu, Kampala and Milange or Jalalabad, Yangon and Sughd, or Tegucigalpa, Sao Paulo and Jacmel, all of whom must find their own means of measuring the burdens of food price increases, and who have in the last year, cut down on health care and perhaps even the education of their children, only to not go hungry too often, too painfully.

The problem with following the FAO food price index

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Not a man who has any time for the FAO Food Price Index. A vegetable vendor in Bangalore's Russell Market.

Not a man who has any time for the FAO Food Price Index. A vegetable vendor in Bangalore’s Russell Market.

Can a cultivator tilling a five acre plot of land in Senegal use the FAO Food Price Index? Can a vegetable vendor on the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia, use the index? Can a corner shop in Quetta, Pakistan, follow the index? Can commodity traders in the world’s most active agricultural commodities and futures exchanges use the index? My answers to these questions are: no. no. no and yes.

Why should it be this way? It shouldn’t, especially since FAO also keeps track of consumer price indices in many countries. But let’s look at why it is this way.

Our familiar pair, but who can use them?

Our familiar pair, but who can use them?

Here is what the new update to the FAO Food Price Index has said, in two words, “remaining steady” (this is the 2013 February 07 update). I quote:

“The FAO Food Price Index averaged 210 in January 2013, unchanged from the slightly revised December value. Following three months of consecutive declines, the Index stabilised in January, as a rebound in oils/fats prices offset a decline for cereals and sugar. Dairy and meat values remained generally steady.”

Concerning cereals, the update said that the cereal sub-index averaged 247 in 2013 January, down nearly 3 points from 2012 December. Now here’s an odd sentence: “The values of the monthly index have been falling since October, mostly on improved crop conditions”. We’ve read news about drought conditions all over the place, in the USA, in Australia, in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union, about unseasonal conditions in South America, for well over three months, so this sentence makes little sense. The cereals explanation added: “Large exports of feed wheat have weighed negatively on maize quotations in spite of tight availabilities”.

Now, let’s see what the FAO Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) has said in its 2013 February Market Monitor (pdf):

“Wheat production in 2012 fell to below the 2011 record. Early prospects for 2013 point to a larger crop in spite of a possible decline in the US production. Maize production fell well below 2011 in spite of upward adjustments to the estimates in China and North America – utilisation in 2012/13 exceeding 2011/12, contrary to earlier expectations, mostly on larger feed use in China, Russia and the US. Rice production prospects for 2012 little changed, with large declines in Brazil and India dampening world growth to less than 1% – utilisation in 2012/13 still anticipated to increase by 7 million tonnes.”

Here we have what sounds like two different FAO voices speaking – the Food Price Index voice, which sees broad stability, and the AMIS voice, which sees declining production and more utilisation (as the food economists like to call it). True, the Food Price Index reflects what has occurred in the last month, and is not a forecast, but, as we see below, it is based on quotations, and not what households and small vendors actually pay for food, and there lies the rub.

Because, the FAO Food Price Index consists of the average of five commodity group price indices weighted with the average export shares of each of the groups for 2002-2004. There are in total 55 commodity quotations “considered by FAO commodity specialists as representing the international prices of the food commodities”. For the cereals sub-index, it is compiled from the International Grains Council (IGC) wheat price index, itself an average of nine different wheat price quotations, and one maize export quotation; there are three rice components containing average prices of 16 rice quotations. Fascinating yes, but relevant to those in Senegal, Jakarta and Quetta who see 60% of their monthly income being used to buy food? I don’t think so.

The AMIS has charts for daily quotations of export prices, which reveal more than the FAO Food Price INdex

The AMIS has charts for daily quotations of export prices, which reveal more than the FAO Food Price INdex

“The FAO food price index is a trade weighted Laspeyres index of international quotations expressed in US dollar prices for 55 food commodities,” explained FAO’s 2009 ‘State of Agricultural Commodity Markets, High food prices and the food crisis – experiences and lessons learned’. You see why no local translation is possible for the many hundreds of millions under the food inflation hammer.

Why the international trade and export quotations numbers dominate is revealed, in a roundabout way, by a regular paragraph in the AMIS Market Monitor. The monthly pronouncement has this to say about investment flows (that is, money chasing foodgrain), for 2013 February: “Managed money was a significant seller of wheat, maize and soybeans as futures prices attained early January lows prior to USDA stocks report”. Pay attention to that term, ‘managed money’, which means funds run by banks and big investment agencies. “Managed money reversed its position in wheat from long (bullish) to short (bearish) but maintains long positions in maize and soybeans.” Now the confusion should clear somewhat. The index helps traders and exchanges deal better with volumes of grain (and dairy and meat and edible oil). AMIS helps them with a great deal more sophistication.

And what do the primary beneficiaries of the index have to say about the FAO Food Price Index being so benign at the start of 2013? “With corn and soybean prices down sharply from drought-driven record highs reached last summer and holding ‘significant’ risk for further declines, grain farmers should consider hedging their 2013 crops earlier than normal,” is an abstract from a report by the CME Group, a company that advises investors about all kinds of commodities, including agricultural. This tells us why the FAO Food Price Index cannot serve those struggling with soaring food bills in small town Asia and Africa.

The IGC raises two bright red flags about world grain

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The European Commission’s directorate general of agriculture in its ‘Commodity Price Data’ 2012 August edition contains this chart on ‘cereals/bread and cereals-based products’ that their EU agricultural market and consumer price developments (this shows 2000 January to 2012 August data with the starting month representing the 100 of the index). This chart shows barley (the blue line) is at or near the 2007 peak and maize (the green line) is above the 2007 peak.

The Grain Market Report for 2012 October released a few days ago by the International Grains Council (IGC) makes two extremely important prognoses.

IGC’s 2012 October total grains chart

These two forecasts will have an immediate effect on grains prices as they are traded in the agricultural commodities markets through the winter season of 2012-13, and I expect we will see the effects in the major indices that describe the movements of food and of food prices – the FAO food price index, the World Bank ‘pink sheet’, the IMF commodity prices index, Unctad’s long-running series on agricultural commodities, and of course the various exchanges-based indices (DJ, CBOT, NYSE LIFFE and so on).

The IGC has cut a further 6 million tons (mt) from the 2012-13 forecast for total global grains production, which is now expected to be 5% lower year on year, at 1,761 mt. The decline includes 39 mt of wheat, 46 mt of maize, and 4 mt of barley. “Reduced availabilities and higher prices are expected to ration demand, resulting in the first year on year fall in grains consumption since 1998-99,” said the IGC in this month’s report.

IGC’s 2012 October wheat and rice charts

It is worth making the connection that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its recent ‘Wheat Outlook’, released on 2012 October 15 by the Economic Research Service, had said that global wheat production in 2012-13 is projected to reach 653.0 million tons, down 5.7 million tons this month (that is, 2012 October). The USDA’s 2012 October Wheat Outlook had said the “largest change this month is a 3.0-million-ton cut in projected wheat production in Australia to 23.0 million” and had added that “projected wheat production in Russia continues its decline as the wheat harvest gets closer to its end and projections for abandoned wheat area get higher, reaching 12% of planted area”. About the European Union (EU-27) wheat production for 2012-13 the USDA Wheat Outlook had reduced it 0.8 million tons to 131.6 mt, mostly because of a significant reduction for the United Kingdom (UK) (down 0.8 million tons to 14.0 million).

The IGC forecasts show a further tightening in the balance this month, with 2012-13 end-season total grains  stocks revised down by 4 mt to 328 mt (it was 372 mt the previous year), the lowest since 2007-08 – and we all remember well the global food price increases that set in during the 2007-08 season, and how the spikes of that period were quickly replaced from mid-2010 onwards by the sustained high plateau of food prices.

“Inventories for the major exporters will be even tighter and the smallest for 17 years,” the IGC has said in its 2012 October Report. The global year on year decline is forecast to come from a 24 mt reduction in wheat, an 18 mt decline in maize, and a 1 mt drop in other coarse grains, notably barley. Global grains trade is expected to fall by 19 mt from last year’s high, to 249 mt, with a particularly steep decline for wheat – down by 13 mt year on year, largely due to a forecast reduction in EU feed wheat imports against the backdrop of tight Black Sea supplies. (Also please see the European Commission’s directorate general of agriculture’s ‘Commodity Price Data’ 2012 August edition.)

Written by makanaka

October 28, 2012 at 20:44

Persistent high food prices and a winter’s tale of the FAO index

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This chart, using data from the FAO food price index and considering the period 2006 Jan to 2012 Sep, shows the four sections of price plateaus, with the longest – and most severe – being what we are experiencing now.

In this chart I have divided the period from 2006 January till 2012 September into four sections. These four sections represent different phases of the global food price rise and consequent levels of persistent food price inflation. As with all price series movements, the sections flow into and from one another, but with the five components taken together (I have omitted the sugars index, so these five are food, cereals, oils, dairy and meat) the sharp upward and downward gradients become visible. These differences help find the four different sections of prices over the last six years and nine months.

Index close-up: 2007 May to 2008 Nov

Most conspicuously, what is immediately clear from the main chart is that the current period of high food prices (and high levels of food price inflation coupled with volatility in global, regional and local food markets) began in 2010 June and established a new set of plateaus by 2010 August. It is now therefore two years of such a plateau, and the worrying indications are that, as happened in 2009 August and September, we may be on the cusp of an even higher upward movement of prices.

Index close-up: 2010 Jun to 2012 Sep

The thin lines representing averages for the five separate index components (four plus the main food index) are visible for each of the four sections. These provide more evidence of the higher overall index and graphically show the very worrisome duration of the current elevated plateau of prices – the averages for the 2010 June to 2012 September period are higher than the averages for the 2007 May to 2008 November period. Thus the optimistic pronouncements by FAO on the monthly variation in its index – such as this month’s “the FAO Cereal Price Index is 7 percent higher than in the corresponding period last year but still 4 percent below the peak of 274 points registered in April 2008” – fail to present the context, that it is not how far below the 2008 peak but how much the current average is higher than the 2007-08 average that matters.

Indeed, using the FAO food price index data released early in 2012 October (covering the period till 2012 September) this may be the FAO confirmation of the signal that the widespread droughts of 2012 have begun to affect food prices even at this already elevated level. It is all the more worrying since, in the period since 2006 January and which includes the 2007 May to 2008 November period, this is the longest period of sustained high food prices recorded by the FAO food price index. These are the long-term signals that are not conveyed by FAO’s standard monthly chart, which you can see here.

Written by makanaka

October 8, 2012 at 20:07

Cereals shock, an early indicator using FAO data and outlook

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To what extent do cereals prices pull up (or depress, if at all they do) the FAO food price index? This chart shows the relationship between the main index and the cereals sub-index. As we can see from the shaded areas (which correspond roughly to the 200 mark), the steady steep rise in the cereals index, from around 2007 August onwards, pulled first the cereals sub-index and then the FAO food price index over 200, and kept them above for about nine months. The same phenomenon took place from 2010 July onwards, as a soaring cereals sub-index shot above the main index and pulled it up above 200 in 2010 October, and has kept both above 200 ever since.

Now FAO has said (in its global information and early warning system on food and agriculture, GIEWS) that the export prices of grains has risen sharply in 2012 July with maize prices at record levels. Export prices of maize increased by 20% in the first three weeks of July compared to their June level. The benchmark US maize price averaged USD 322 per tonne reaching a new record high. “Prices were underpinned by continuous concerns about the impact of hot and dry weather conditions on yield potential of the 2012 maize crop in parts of the United States,” said FAO. And now has come the downward revision of the US official 2012 maize production forecast.

The question for us is: how will the the FAO Food Price Index, which in June fell for the third consecutive month, respond? The FAO Food Price Index (FFPI) averaged 201 points in June 2012, down 4 points (1.8%) from a May value of 205 points. After the third consecutive month of decline, the June value of the index was 15.4% below the peak reached in February 2011. “Continued economic uncertainties and generally adequate supply prospects kept international prices of most commodities under downward pressure, although growing concerns over adverse weather sustained prices of some crops toward the end of the month,” said the FAO.

In 2012 June, the FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 221 points, unchanged from May and down 45 points (16.8%) from its peak of 265 points in April 2011. Grain prices were very volatile in June, with weather as the main driver. “After a generally subdued situation during the first half of the month, markets moved up in the second half amid deteriorating crop prospects, most notably for maize in the United States,” said the FAO.

Finally, FAO’s cereal supply and demand brief for 2012 July lowered the forecast for world cereal production from last month, which is likely to result in a smaller build-up of world inventories by the end of seasons in 2013 than previously anticipated. “While the bulk of the increase in cereal production from last year is still expected to originate from a significant expansion in maize production in the United States, the deteriorating crop conditions due to the continuing dryness and above-average temperatures in much of the major growing regions of the country have dampened this outlook,” said the brief.

Moreover, world wheat production is heading toward a contraction of about 3.2%, to 678 million tonnes, or 2 million tonnes less than reported in June, as downward adjustments in Australia, China and the Russian Federation more than offset upward revisions in the EU and Morocco. Where rice production in 2012 is concrened, the FAO estimate is it will grow by 1.6% to 489.1 million tonnes (in milled equivalent), which compares with a previous forecast of 490.5 million tonnes. The small reduction mainly reflects some deterioration of prospects in a few major producing countries, especially India.

Written by makanaka

July 21, 2012 at 12:57

Modding the FAO food price index to get closer to bazaar reality

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The FAO has released its latest food price index data, and the central message for this month is: little change from the last month. The question for us, as we read about and hear about steadily rising food price inflation in the countries of the South, is: why is the FAO food price index not capturing real inflation for these populations?

This chart is a way to rectify that lack. In this, I have used the index data as the composite (food) plus the components (meat, dairy, cereals, oils, sugar) directly from the data, but have re-based them.

The familiar old blue panel.

I have used the monthly data from 2008 January to 2012 March, and re-based them (six series) on each of their minima for the period. Thus, the minima are: Food, 141.3 in 2009 Feb; Meat, 120.4 in 2009 Feb; Dairy, 114.3 in 2009 Feb; Cereals, 151.2 in 2010 June; Oils, 127.3 in 2008 December; and Sugar, 166.7 in 2008 December.

The current readings for all six series (2012 March) are: Food 215.9; Meat 178.2; Dairy 197.0; Cereals 227.0; Oils 244.9; Sugar 341.9.

What this chart does is show the variation by month from the minimum for each series for the period. It is another way of looking at how the indices have moved from a point of low reference in the recent past, and to my mind is more evocative of the real situation in rural and urban food markets in the South.

The April release can be found here. And this is what FAO’s usually bland commentary on the latest month’s movements is: “The FAO Food Price Index (FFPI) averaged 216 points in March 2012, virtually unchanged from 215 points in February. Among the various commodity groups, only oils prices showed strength, compensating for falling dairy quotations, while the indices of cereals, sugar and meat prices were largely unchanged from last month’s level.”

Written by makanaka

April 21, 2012 at 16:39

Four points higher, the FAO Food Price Index for 2012 January

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In the first major indication of the way food prices will move in 2012, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has announced that its Food Price Index rose by nearly 2% or four points from December 2011 to January 2012. This is the Index’s its first increase since July 2011. A close look at the FAO Food Price Index shows that prices of all the commodity groups in the index have risen (oils increasing the most). At its new level of 214 points, the index is about 7% lower than what it was in January 2011 (when it reached 231).

In 2010 July, the Food Price Index has begun a steep upward climb it maintained for 7 months until 2011 February, from 172 to 237. Now, this 4 point jump in a month is the sharpest since the rise from 231 in 2011 January to 2011 February. “There is no single narrative behind the food price rebound – different factors are at play in each of the commodity groups,” said FAO’s Senior Grains Economist Abdolreza Abbassian. “But the increase, despite an expected record harvest and an improved stocks situation, and after six months of falling or stable prices, highlights the unpredictability prevailing in global food markets,” he added. “I can’t see that the usual suspects – the value of the dollar and oil prices – were  much involved in January. But one reason is poor weather currently affecting key growing regions like South America and Europe. It has played a role and remains a cause for concern,” he concluded.

What FAO is seeing and saying is routinely misunderstood or deliberately miscast by the mainstream business and financial press. An example of this can be seen in a recent opinion found on Forbes, the business magazine, which links “a slowing UN FAO food price index” and “falling commodity prices” to the global economic slowdown. This, the magazine has said, is “putting further downward pressure on food inflation”. Of course this is completely untrue, as wage labour, informal sector workers and middle class residents in many cities and towns of the South know.

Thus the ‘market’ view is that global demand for agricultural products appears to be slowing. This view exists because this sort of media represents the interests of its owners – the 1% targeted by the Occupy movement. Ever since 2011 July, when the FAO Food Price Index ceased its steady upward march, organs and media representing the interests of the global money markets and the interests of the speculators have attempted to leaven their crooked discussion of the matter by saying that the global dynamic in food and commodity markets took a structural turn. Their insistence on linking “quantitative easing in the USA” and what they call “emerging market demand” (meaning mainly China and India) for food staples has been a consistent feature of this disinformation.

What we are seeing is that the FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 223 points in January, up 2.3% (5 points) from December. International prices of all major cereals with the exception of rice rose, with maize gaining most, 6%. Wheat prices also gained, though less significantly. Prices mostly reflected worries about weather conditions affecting 2012 crops in several major producing regions. Fears of decline in export supplies in the Commonwealth of Independent States also played a part.

[The FAO Food Price Index data sheet is available here (xls).] [The FAO Deflated Prices data sheet is available here (xls).]

According to FAO’s latest forecast world cereal production in 2011 is expected to be more than sufficient to cover anticipated utilization in 2011-12. Production is expected to reach 2,327 million tonnes – up 4.6 million tonnes from the last estimate in December. That would be 3.6% more than in 2010 and a new record. FAO lowered slightly from December 2011 its cereal utilization forecast for 2011-12, to nearly 2,309 million tonnes, still 1.8% higher than in 2010-11. That would put cereal ending stocks by the close of seasons in 2012 at 516 million tones, 5 million tonnes above FAO’s last forecast.

A sober note has been sounded in the Jakarta Globe. The Indonesian newspaper reported the Asian Development Bank warning that Indonesia and other nations in Southeast Asia should be prepared for a possible rise in food prices, which might stoke inflation. Changyong Rhee, chief economist at ADB, is reported by the newspaper as having said the global financial turmoil, marked by the euro zone debt crisis and a possible slowdown in the US economy, might increase the volatility of prices for food and other commodities. According to the ADB, research funding [in agriculture] is being depleted amid climate change, making it difficult for food production to keep up with growing demand. “Food price increases have become more persistent than in the past,” he said in Jakarta. “It has a major impact on food security for millions [of people].” The Jakarta Globe reported that the FAO Food Price Index has risen by 50% in the last four years, compared with a 16% increase from 1991 to 2006.

FAO 2011 October Food Index down, food prices still up, what’s going on?

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FAO has released its Food Price Index for October 2011, saying the index has dropped dropped to an 11-month low, declining 4 percent, or nine points, to 216 points from September. Indeed the index has dropped, declined and has certainly not risen. But does this mean food prices for the poor in many countries, for labour, for informal workers, for cultivators too – has the cost of food dropped for any of them?

The answer is a flat and unequivocal ‘No’. FAO has said so too: “Nonetheless prices still remain generally higher than last year and very volatile.” At the same time, the Rome-based food agency has said that the “drop was triggered by sharp declines in international prices of cereals, oils, sugar and dairy products”.

The FAO has said that an “improved supply outlook for a number of commodities and uncertainty about global economic prospects is putting downward pressure on international prices, although to some extent this has been offset by strong underlying demand in emerging countries where economic growth remains robust”.

Once again, the FAO is speaking in two or more voices. It should stop doing so. A very small drop in its food price index does not – repeat, does not – indicate that prices for food staples in the world’s towns and cities has dropped and people can afford to buy and cook a square meal a day for themselves and their children. Not so at all.

I am going to contrast what FAO has said about its October food price index with very recent reportage about food and food price conditions in various parts of the world.

FAO: “In the case of cereals, where a record harvest is expected in 2011, the general picture points to prices staying relatively firm, although at reduced levels, well into 2012. International cereal prices have declined in recent months, with the FAO Cereal Price Index registering an eleven month-low of 232 points in October. But nonetheless cereal prices, on average, remain 5 percent higher than last year’s already high level.”

Business Week reported that rising food prices in Djibouti have left 88 percent of the nation’s rural population dependent on food aid, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network said. A ban on charcoal and firewood production, which provides about half of the income of poor people in the country’s southeast region, may further increase hunger, the Washington- based agency, known as Fewsnet, said in an e-mailed statement today. Average monthly food costs for a poor urban family are about 33,907 Djibouti francs ($191), about 12,550 francs more than the average household income, Fewsnet said. Urban residents in the Horn of Africa nation don’t receive food aid, it said.

FAO: “According to [FAO’s November 2011] Food Outlook prices generally remain ‘extremely volatile’, moving in tandem with unstable financial and equity markets. ‘Fluctuations in exchange rates and uncertainties in energy markets are also contributing to sharp price swings in agricultural markets,’ FAO Grains Analyst Abdolreza Abbassian noted.”

A Reuters AlertNet report quoted Brendan Cox, Save the Children’s policy and advocacy director, having said that rising food prices are making it impossible for some families to put a decent meal on the table, and that the G20 meeting [currently under way in Cannes, France] must use this summit to agree an action plan to address the food crisis. Malnutrition contributes to nearly a third of child deaths. One in three children in the developing world are stunted, leaving them weak and less likely to do well at school or find a job. Prices of staples like rice and wheat have increased by a quarter globally and maize by three quarters, Save the Children says. Some countries have been particularly hard hit. In Bangladesh the price of wheat increased by 45 percent in the second half of 2010. In new research, Save the Children analysed the relationship between rising food prices and child deaths. It concluded that a rise in cereal prices – up 40 percent between 2009 and 2011 – could put 400,000 children’s lives at risk.

FAO: “Most agricultural commodity prices could thus remain below their recent highs in the months ahead, according to FAO’s biannual Food Outlook report also published today.  The publication reports on and analyzes developments in global food and feed markets. In the case of cereals, where a record harvest is expected in 2011, the general picture points to prices staying relatively firm, although at reduced levels, well into 2012.”

IRIN News reported that food production is expected to be lower than usual in parts of western Niger, Chad’s Sahelian zone, southern Mauritania, western Mali, eastern Burkina Faso, northern Senegal and Nigeria, according to a report by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and a separate assessment by USAID’s food security monitor Fews Net. “We are worried because these irregular rainfalls have occurred in very vulnerable areas where people’s resilience is already very weakened,” said livelihoods specialist at WFP Jean-Martin Bauer. Many Sahelian households live in a state of chronic food insecurity, he said. “They are the ones with no access to land, lost livestock, without able-bodied men who can find work in cities – they are particularly affected by a decrease in production.” A government-NGO April 2011 study in 14 agro-pastoral departments of Niger noted that pastoralists with small herds lost on average 90 percent of their livestock in the 2009-2010 drought, while those with large herds lost one quarter. Those who had lost the bulk of their assets have already reduced the quality and quantity of food they are consuming.

FAO: “Food Outlook forecast 2011 cereal production at a record 2 325 million tonnes,  3.7 percent above the previous year. The overall increase comprises a 6.0 percent rise in wheat production, and increases of 2.6 percent for coarse grains and 3.4 percent for rice. Globally, annual cereal food consumption is expected to keep pace with population growth, remaining steady at about 153 kg per person.”

The Business Line reported that in India, food inflation inched up to 11.43 per cent in mid-October, sharply higher than the previous week’s annual rise of 10.6 per cent, mainly on account of the statistical base effect of the previous year. Inflation in the case of non-food items and the fuels group, however, eased during the latest reported week. According to data released by the Government on Thursday, an increase in the year-on-year price levels of vegetables and pulses contributed to the surge in the annual WPI-based food inflation for the week ended October 15, apart from the base effect. Sequentially food inflation was up 0.25 per cent.

FAO: “The continuing decline in the monthly value of the FAO Cereal Price Index reflects this year’s prospect for a strong production recovery and slow economic growth in many developed countries weighing on overall demand, particularly from the feed and biofuels sectors.”

Al Ahram reported that Egyptian household budgets had mixed news in September with prices for some basic foods tumbling month-on-month and others showing small climbs, according to state statistics agency CAPMAS. Figures released this week show the price of local unpacked rice fell 15.6 per cent to LE4.96 per kilo between August and September 2011. It was the commodity’s first decline in nearly a year, although the per kilo price remains 68 per cent higher than the LE2.95 that rice cost in October 2010. Chicken also fell 5.8 per cent to LE16.26 per kilo between August and September. Other staples, however, continued to rise; the price of potatoes climbed 14 per cent to LE4.89 per kilo, while a kilo of tomatoes gained a monthly 14.8 per cent to cost LE4.65.