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How the G20 ministers said ‘agriculture’ but meant ‘trade and commodities’

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Under the presidency of France, the G20 called a meeting of its member countries’ agriculture ministers to consider the food production and food price problems. They have releaed a “ministerial declaration”. This declaration is being called a “renewed commitment” to tackling hunger by part of the financial media, or is being called “weak” and a mere restating of positions by the more critical, or is being called an empty document full of vague promises and no reform by some activists.

Sandatu Kalug, 58, a lifetime rice farmer in Maguindanao Province lost his entire paddy crop to heavy flooding in June 2011. Photo: David Swanson/IRIN

In fact, it is a strong statement alright. It supports the current model of agri-business, of international investment in arable land, it supports the operations of the global agriculture commodity markets and trading systems, and it ensures that the flows of finance and capital between the world’s financial markets and the commodity markets will continue with less restrictions rather than more control.

All this is done in the name of small farmers and poor consumers. They have talked about a new global agriculture market information system (Amis) so that governments can share better data about the state of food stocks and global production. This is nonsense – it is the bankers, food traders, commodity funds, retail food industry and foodgrain exporters who will use this new knowledge and data. They imply that the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) will run the Amis and they will exploit the new data. Private sector players, such as the large grain traders for whom knowledge of stocks and harvests represent a key competitive advantage, are simply ‘urged’ to participate – they will, at a profit which further loots the urban and rural poor.

There are five main objectives the G20 ministers made commitments to. However, like earlier inter-governmental statements over the last few years concerning agricultural production and access to food, it’s always safer I find to consider what is being meant here.

If we look at the five objectives and take the first:
“i. improve agricultural production and productivity both in the short and long term in order to respond to a growing demand for agricultural commodities”

There is a growing demand for “agricultural commodities”. So investment and research and trade arrangements and enabling policy are to be deployed to help fulfil this kind of demand?

“ii. increase market information and transparency in order to better anchor expectations from governments and economic operators”

Do governments and “economic operators” (what are these? food traders? commodity funds? integrated retailers?) have the same kinds of expectations? Is better “market information and transparency” to benefit only government and “operators” or do food producers and consumers also require them?

To make best use of the land, the Jumma tribes of Bangladesh's CHT practise a form of ‘shifting cultivation’, growing food in small parts of their territory, before moving on to another area and allowing the land to recover. Photo: IRIN/Courtesy of Christian Erni/IWGIA

“iii. strengthen international policy coordination in order to enhance confidence in international markets and to prevent and respond to food market crises more efficiently”

Confidence in international markets may be a concern for governments and economic operators, but in what way are they essential for food producers and consumers, who have since late 2007 suffered through price spikes amplified by these same international markets? The implication here is that responses to “food market crises” can be provided by – among other measures such as policy direction – these markets, which I find troublesome especially given the evidence since 2007.

“iv. improve and develop risk management tools for governments, firms and farmers in order to build capacity to manage and mitigate the risks associated with food price volatility, in particular in the poorest countries”

What are these risk management tools? Are they commodity hedge funds? Are they trading agreement? Are they bilateral agreements and FTAs? Are they commodities exchanges? Who will wield these tools? In poor and the poorest countries farmers have little or no capacity to manage and mitigate existing risk – they surely cannot bear the additional risks brought about by price volatility, but in what way will these tools help and function?

“v. improve the functioning of agricultural commodities’ derivatives markets.”

To what end? Agricultural commodities derivatives markets tie up crop production and food-in-stock, but for whom do they do this? If the functioning of these markets is to be “improved”, who will benefit from this improvement? Will it be the smallholder farmer and if so in what way? How many farmers of the South are directly connected to the agricultural commodities derivatives markets as beneficiaries? Are consumer coops connected?

These are some questions that come to mind when reading these five objectives. I see that Sarkozy has stated, “”We all know that agricultural production is insufficient to meet demand”. This may be so, for certain crops in certain regions, but against the background of these five objectives, I have to question: demand from whom or what and to what end?

[See ‘The priorities of the agriculture G20’, Nicolas Sarkozy’s address at the G20 and you can get the G20 ministerial declaration here]

A vegetable seller waits for customers at the Wakulima market in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Siegfried Modola/IRIN

Here are a few sentences from paras 18 and 19 of the ‘ministerial declaration’:

“18. We commit to creating an enabling environment to encourage and increase public and private investment in agriculture. In particular, we stress the need to support public-private partnership on investments, based on a value-chain approach, for services (such as access to financial services, agricultural education and extension services), and for infrastructure and equipment for production (such as irrigation), for agroprocessing, for access to markets (such as transport, storage, communication) and for reducing pre and post-harvest losses.”

“19. We encourage countries, international organizations and the private sector to increase investment in developing countries agriculture, and in activities strongly linked to agricultural productivity growth, food security and generation of income in rural areas, such as agricultural institutions, extension services, cooperatives, research, roads, ports, cold chain, power, storage, irrigation systems, information and communication technology, climate change mitigation and adaptation. We also encourage them to enhance public-private partnerships in this field, in particular to improve market and value-chain operators’ cooperation and procurement from smallholders.”

This is a direct and unambiguous call for greater industrialisation of agriculture, for the strengthening of the tools of globalisation that have given rise to the agri commodity markets and products like derivatives, for the intensification of corporate R&D in agbiotech and with the support of national agricultural reseach systems in various countries – and at the likely cost of traditional knowledge and ecological approaches to cultivation. This sounds to me like an unambiguous statement of support for the food trading and food retail industries and their vast ‘verticals’ (as they call the integrative links these days), and finally for the systems of finance and banking that undergird the globalisation of food.

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FAO March bulletin, Crop Prospects and Food Situation for 2011

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The FAO has released its Crop Prospects and Food Situation, the first for 2011, in March. The overview is:

  • Wheat production: leading producers, (million tonnes)

    FAO’s first forecast for world wheat production in 2011 stands at 676 million tonnes, 3.4% up from 2010. This level of production would still be below the bumper harvests of 2008 and 2009.

  • International grain prices remained volatile in the first three weeks of March.
  • The cereal import volume in low-income food deficit countries (LIFDCs) as a group is anticipated to decline in 2010-11 due to increased production. However, their import bill is forecast to rise by 20% following higher international prices.
  • In Asia, prospects for the 2011 wheat crop are mostly favourable. In China, the outlook remains uncertain but the easing of the drought situation in the North China Plain is a positive development. In Japan, a powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami have caused devastation with a potentially significant impact on agriculture and food trade.
  • In North Africa, the current situation in Libyan Arab Jamahiriya has resulted in the displacement of large numbers of people and disruption to the flow of goods and services in this heavily cereal import dependent region. WFP has initiated a regional emergency operation to provide food assistance to the affected people.
  • In Southern Africa, prospects for the main 2011 maize crop are generally favourable and relatively low prices have helped stabilize food security.
  • In Eastern Africa, food insecurity has increased in drought-affected pastoral areas of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia despite bumper harvests in 2010 and generally low and stable food prices.
  • In Western Africa, post-election violence continues to cause a large population disruption and disturb trade and livelihoods in Côte d’Ivoire and the neighbouring countries.

Countries requiring external assistance for food, 29 of which 21 in Africa

Overall favourable outlook for global 2011 wheat production: At this stage of the season, with the bulk of the coarse grains and paddy crops yet to be planted in the coming months, it is still too early for even a preliminary forecast of global cereal output in 2011. For wheat, however, in the northern hemisphere, which accounts for the bulk of the global production, winter crops are already developing or soon to come out of dormancy, while spring planting is underway in some countries and a preliminary picture of global prospects is already available.

FAO’s first forecast for world wheat production in 2011 stands at 676 million tonnes, representing a growth of 3.4% from 2010. Plantings have increased, or are expected to increase, in many countries in response to strong prices, and yield recoveries are expected in areas that were affected by drought in 2010, the Russian Federation in particular. The global output forecast for 2011 would be still below the bumper harvests in 2008 and 2009.

In Asia, prospects for the 2011 wheat crop, to be harvested from April, are mostly favourable in India and Pakistan, where good harvests are forecast. However, the outlook in China is uncertain because of winter drought in the North China Plain despite recent beneficial precipitation.

Cereal export prices

In the Asia CIS subregion, Kazakhstan is the major producer and the bulk of the crop is yet to be sown this spring. Weather permitting, farmers are expected to maintain the relatively high planting level of the past two years, especially in view of strong prices. Assuming also a recovery in yields after last year’s drought-reduced level, a significant increase in production could be achieved. In North Africa, early prospects for the 2011 wheat crops are generally favourable, except in Tunisia where dry conditions point to a repeat of last year’s drought-reduced crop.

In the southern hemisphere, where the major wheat crops are still to be sown, producers are also expected to increase plantings in response to this year’s favourable price prospects. However, this may not translate to larger crops in Australia or Argentina, where yields are assumed to return to average after bumper levels in 2010.

World cereal production and utilisation

Estimate of world cereal production in 2010 slightly up on December forecast: The estimate for world cereal production in 2010 has been revised upward slightly since previously reported (Crop Prospects and Food Situation, December 2010) to 2,237 million tonnes (including rice in milled terms), just 1.1% below the bumper output in 2009. The decline in cereal production in 2010 was entirely due to lower output in developed countries while in developing countries production rose significantly by almost 5%. The estimate for world wheat production in 2010 now stands at almost 654 million tonnes, 1 million tonnes above FAO’s December forecast but still some 4% less than in 2009.

The latest revision mostly reflects a better than expected outcome of the harvest in Argentina, which more than offset some downward adjustments to estimates in Asia (most notably Kazakhstan) and Europe (mostly the Russian Federation). For coarse grains, the estimate of output in 2010 is now put at 1 117 million tonnes, 7 million tonnes up from the previous forecast and just marginally less than the 2009 level. The upward revision was largely driven by increased estimates for China, India, Ethiopia and Sudan.

The estimate for global rice production in 2010 remains unchanged since December at 466 million tonnes (in milled terms). Improved prospects for Brazil, China mainland and Thailand largely offset a sizeable downward revision for India. At this level, the aggregate output of the 2010 rice seasons, which will close when the northern hemisphere countries complete the harvest of their secondary crops by May-June, would be 2% up from 2009, mostly on account of large gains in Asia, where Bangladesh, China, India and Indonesia, the leading world producers, are all expected to tally larger crops.

Food production and grain trade, May 2010

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Vendors in Mapusa, Goa

Vendors in Mapusa, Goa. The middle basket contains 'nachne', local millet

This is to be a monthly posting from now on. It will for a start draw on three main sources of global analysis: the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Grains Council, and the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Extracts from the three major sources run below, but this is to be placed in global context by the food production and supply situation in two of our neighbours in South Asia, Nepal and Afghanistan. There is hunger and displacement in Pakistan and Sri Lanka too, and I’ll update this posting with relevant reports. Also contrast the global views with the announcement from the US Department of Agriculture, which comes at the end of the list of extracts.

[1] “Nominal prices, in US dollar terms, of staple food commodities, mainly rice and wheat, have generally declined from the 2008 peak but remain significantly above their pre-2008 food-crisis levels in several countries. The price impact on overall food consumption of the vulnerable population is still expected to be substantial. Prices of rice have been increasing in India since the second half of 2008 and currently are above their levels of a year ago 5 percent in Chennai to 42 percent in Patna.”
“Retail prices of rice have also been rising since late 2009 in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Pakistan and Myanmar. In exporting countries such as Thailand and Viet Nam, rice prices (in local currencies) have declined since January 2010 due to strong international demand. Prices of wheat in India and Pakistan have also been rising steadily since October 2008. Recent increases are attributed to concerns over the unfavourable harvests of the current 2010 Rabi season. In Afghanistan, prices of wheat have been coming down since the 2009 bumper harvest in the country.” From FAO Crop Prospects and Food Situation May 2010

[2] “The forecast of world wheat production is increased by 2m. tons, to 660m. (676m.). World wheat consumption is forecast to grow by 1%, to a record 654m. tons, unchanged from last month. The forecast of global stocks is raised by 2m. tons, to a nine-year high of 201m. (195m.), with much of the increase in China and India.”
“World rice production in 2009/10 is estimated to decline for the first time in seven years, by 1%, to 442m. tons, mostly reflecting a reduced main crop in India. At 442m. tons, rice consumption will expand by 1%, in line with the global population trend. Inventories in China are expected to rise, but those in India and the five leading exporters are forecast to decrease. World trade in calendar 2010 is projected to recover by 5%, to 29.9m. tons, underpinned by larger shipments to Far East Asian markets.” From International Grains Council Grain Market Report 2010 May

FAO rice retail prices, from FAO Crop Prospects and Food Situation May 2010

FAO rice retail prices

[3] “Global wheat supplies for 2010/11 are projected 2 percent higher with larger year-to-year beginning stocks more than offsetting lower expected production. Global 2010/11 wheat production is projected at 672.2 million tons, down 1 percent from 2009/10 and the third largest production on record if realized. Larger projected production in EU-27, South America, and the Middle East is more than offset by expected declines in FSU-12, North Africa, South Asia, China, Canada, and Australia.”
“Global coarse grain production for 2010/11 is projected at a record 1,129.8 million tons, up 2 percent from 2009/10. Most of the 27.4-million-ton increase in coarse grains production results from higher projected foreign corn production, up 19.9 million tons from 2009/10. Higher expected foreign corn area and rising yields combine with higher U.S. area to boost global corn production to a record 835.0 million tons, up 26.5 million from 2009/10. Corn production is projected higher year-to-year for China, Mexico, India, Russia, EU-27, Ukraine, and Canada.”
“Global 2010/11 rice production is projected at a record 459.7 million tons, up 17.6 million or 4 percent from 2009/10. World disappearance (consumption and residual) is projected at a record 453.4 million tons, up 10.9 million or 2 percent. Large crops are projected for most of Asia including record or near-record crops in Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Additionally, large crops are forecast for the U.S., EU-27, and Nigeria.” From US Department of Agriculture, World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, 11 May 2010

In Nepal, food supplies are running low in the western hills. An IRIN report from Kathmandu (21 May 2010) says: “Food security for more than 600,000 people in the western hills of Nepal is set to deteriorate, aid agencies warn. With already low agricultural production in the more food-insecure areas, inflation is exacerbating matters further. “A lot of villagers are opting for more desperate coping mechanisms,” Richard Ragan, country representative for the World Food Programme (WFP), told IRIN in Kathmandu. Many villagers are already reducing the number of meals they eat each day, cutting portions, or migrating to urban areas or India for work, he said. ‘In a desperate attempt to buy food, families are even selling their livestock and household assets and the out-migration [to Nepali cities and India] has increased already by 40 percent,’ Ragan said.”

Gulmohur trees in bloom, May in Maharashtra

Gulmohur trees in bloom, May in Maharashtra

In Afghanistan, farmers face a tough choice: wheat, fruit or saffron? An IRIN report from Kabul (20 May 2010) says: “Pointing to his flourishing wheat field in the western Afghan province of Herat, Abdullah says he regrets cultivating the crop. Wheat is very cheap,” he told IRIN, adding that he would hardly make 50,000 Afghanis (about US$1,050) from his two hectares. “I won’t be able to feed my family properly with this income.” Several farmers contacted by IRIN in Helmand, Kandahar and Balkh provinces had similar sentiments. Wheat is considered a strategic crop and a staple food, but imports are always required, even when there is a bumper harvest. About seven million (over 24 percent of the country’s estimated 27 million population) are food-insecure and many others are highly vulnerable to food price fluctuations, according to aid agencies.”

Here is the announcement from the US Department of Agriculture: “US farmers, ranchers and producers are poised to achieve $104.5 billion in sales – an $8 billion increase over last year and the second highest level in history.

  • The trade surplus in agriculture is now forecast to reach $28 billion, the second highest ever achieved.
  • The report comes on the heels of an historic six-month pace by U.S. agricultural exports, which shattered records with $59 billion in sales in the first half of the fiscal year and generated a 14 percent increase over the same period last year.
  • U.S. agricultural exports to China grew by nearly $3 billion during the first half of the fiscal year to $10.6 billion, making China the United States’ top market for this period. In total, exports to Asia have reached record highs, led by strong increases in China and Southeast Asia. Other outstanding country and regional customers include the European Union, Turkey, and North Africa.”