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Faster, higher, dearer – dizzying pace of food price rise in India

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The alarming tale of food prices, from 2004 January to 2013 August, that have squeezed the household budgets of cultivators and rural labourers.

The alarming tale of food prices, from 2004 January to 2013 August, that have squeezed the household budgets of cultivators and rural labourers.

For most of 2013, the central government broadcast, through important cabinet ministers and official statements, its worry about economic growth, that every effort must be made to steer India back towards a high economic growth rate. In the food and agriculture sector, that effort has led, in the last four to five years, to a gulf in growth rates between agriculture and the combination of processed and packaged foods and beverages (which the food retail industry is being arrayed around). While the agriculture sector (including fisheries and livestock) has been growing at or just above 4% a year for the last several years, the processed foods and beverages industry has been growing at around 15% a year.

The effects of this growth (setting aside criticisms of how such growth is measured) in both these allied sectors – the one much larger but the other which is a feature of urbanising India – may be seen in the transformation of cultivation and of food. That is why, not only has the consumer price index for rural citizens climbed without let every year for the last nine years, there is evidence in this index data to show that the rate of increase has accelerated in the last few years.

The trend we have all become painfully familiar with, in states and towns measured and unmeasured.

The trend we have all become painfully familiar with, in states and towns measured and unmeasured.

The consumer price index for agricultural labourers (usually abbreviated to CPI-AL) from 2004 January to 2013 August shows a steady rise for all the 20 states in the set (see the chart alongside). Compiled by the Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment, the data shows that the average CPI-AL of these states has been rising around 50 percentage points a year for the last four years. Using quarterly averages (taken for June, July and August) for 2013, 2012 and 2011 and comparing them with the same averages a year earlier, we see that the all-India increases in the index for 12 months (2013 over 2012) is 12.96%, for 24 months (2013 over 2011) is 22.68% and for 36 months (2013 over 2010) it is 34.08%.

States that experienced the steepest increase in the CPI-AL over 36 months are Gujarat with 32%, Punjab 32.4%, Odisha 32.5%, Rajasthan 35.1%, Maharashtra 35.3%, Manipur 37.6%, Andhra Pradesh 37.9%, Kerala 38.4%, Tamil Nadu 39.2% and Karnataka 48.2%. That is why we have witnessed the widespread trend of migration by rural populations towards smaller urban agglomerations, with the impacts recorded in various data releases from Census 2011.

The Labour Bureau data contains evidence that for all states which have CPI-AL measured, the rate at which the index is rising is accelerating. This acceleration is visible when the period 2004 January to 2013 August is divided into five phases. These are represented by the circles in the illustrated chart (the main image above), the phases 2004 Jan to 2005 Dec, 2006 Jan to 2007 Nov, 2007 Dec to 2009 Oct, 2009 Nov to 2011 Sep and 2011 Oct to 2013 Aug). These points (five for each state) are plotted against not the ordinary scale of the CPI-AL but against a range of point increases in the CPI-AL. Hence this shows the rise in the CPI-AL and the more recent speed of that rise.

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One curious question for international grains traders

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The International Grains Council's charts for all grains and major traded grains. What is the connection between these charts and local food price inflation?

The International Grains Council’s charts for all grains and major traded grains. What is the connection between these charts and local food price inflation?

The International Grains Council’s monthly Grain Market Report for 2013 October finds its grains and oilseeds index down 16% from the same period a year ago because, as the IGC has said, “the supply outlook for grains, rice and oilseeds markets is significantly more comfortable than last year”.

Recent export prices for major traded grains. Source: IGC

Recent export prices for major traded grains. Source: IGC

The IGC has raised the output forecast for total grains (wheat and coarse grains) in 2013-14 by 10 million tons this month, to 1,940 mt, up 8% from the same period last year. Demand is also expected to rise, but by a slower 5% compared to the same period a year ago. The IGC has said that “inventories are seen recovering by 39 mt to a four-year high at the end of 2013-14”.

The global trade forecast is raised by 3 mt, to 273 mt, which will exceed the previous record in 2010-11. Hence the question ought to be: if the international trade in grain collects, moves and processes just under 15% of the world’s total grain, why do prices in our local wholesale and retail food markets get influenced so much by what the IGC’s monthly report describes? This is not an answer you can expect given to you with honesty and concern from your local administration, much less from the food retail and industrial agriculture representatives.

For the major grains, here are the IGC summaries. Wheat output is expected to rise by 6% in 2013-14 from the level of a year ago and closing stocks are seen up by 7 mt, at 182mt, although this would still be below the level seen in 2011-12. The 2013-14 forecast for the global maize harvest has been raised by 5 mt this month to a record 948mt, and stocks are seen recovering to a 13-year high of 152 mt.

Rice is considered by the IGC to be “mixed, with good export demand and weather-related crop worries underpinning values in Vietnam, but Thailand’s prices fell further on limited buying interest and pressure from heavy intervention reserves”. Rice output for 2013-14 is forecast up 1% from a year ago, with world ending stocks expected to rise for a ninth consecutive year. (The IGC’s report for 2013 October is available here.)

If global food indices are descending, why are local food prices rising?

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The trends of ten international food commodity indices from 2006 onwards.

The trends of ten international food commodity indices from 2006 onwards.

The main chart plots the course of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Food Price Index and nine other international food price indices. These are FAO’s cereals index, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) food index, the International Grains Council (IGC) wheat index, the IGC’s rice index, the UN Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) two wheat indices, Unctad’s rice index, the World Bank’s (WB) food index and WB’s grains index.

Consumer price index trends 2006 to 2013 for five South Asian countries

Consumer price index trends 2006 to 2013 for five South Asian countries

The familiar FAO blue pair for 2013 August

The familiar FAO blue pair for 2013 August

On the main chart, after 2008 December four stages are marked. The first stage is 2008 December to 2010 July, when the indices describe a plateau but which is very much higher than where they were through 2006. The second stage is 2010 July to 2011 April, which corresponds to the second global food price rise and when all these indices rose in concert. The third stage is 2011 April to 2012 September when they all declined to another plateau which nonetheless is higher overall than the last one (stage one), but which rose steeply for a short while towards the end of the stage. The fourth stage is still current, from 2012 June, which is seeing a gradual decline in all the indices to the point they were in 2011 August-September.

I have appended to the main chart the counterpoint of the consumer price indexes from South Asian countries – Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. The question that follows, when reading the main chart with ten indices and the CPI chart for South Asia, is why the CPI trends do not follow the international grains trends. One of the major factors (which charting this data cannot reveal, as the FAO Food Price Index does not) is the extent to which the industrialisation of prmary crops sets the retail price in the markets of Colombo or Chittagong or Karachi or Mumbai or Kathmandu. Primary crop – that is, cereals, pulses, fruit and vegetable, milk and dairy – is being moved internally, processed, packaged, moved again, retailed in modern convenience stores to a much greater degree than was the case a decade ago. Those costs lie outside what the FAO-IGC-IMF-Unctad-WB indices can describe. But we need to urgently – within these countries and as a group – share methods to gauge and monitor these costs and document their impacts on households.

Rain, districts and agriculture in India, a first calculus

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Major rainfed districts of India and their main crops (Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are mainly horticulture-based). Map: NRAA

Major rainfed districts of India and their main crops (Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are mainly horticulture-based). Map: NRAA

Big dams and canals, ‘command areas’ and the high-yield crops they fostered have occupied the well-fortified middle ground of agriculture in India throughout the history of the five year plans. In the shadow of this view lies rainfed farming – no dams, canals, brobdingnagian irrigation schemes, suspicious water authorities and over-zealous agri-commodity boards to be seen here.

Look at the map. Rainfed areas occupy some 200 million hectares (that is, over two-fifths of India’s total geographical area) and agriculture that depends on the south-west monsoon (and winter rains) is to be found in about 56% of the total cropped area. The National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA) of India has estimated that 77% of pulses, 66% of oilseeds and 45% of cereals are grown under rainfed conditions.

In which ways can these districts be better understood? The Ministry of Agriculture is (and has been) remarkably unconcerned about relating agriculture to socio-cultural factors in India’s districts, whether they are rainfed or happily commanded by a big dam. The national agricultural research system, staffed from top to bottom by careerists more interested in a foreign research fellowship (however pointless, but preferably at an American agricultural university), has ignored every consideration other than crop science. The factors that affect the inhabitants – and therefore the cultivators – of a rainfed district have scarcely been examined.

Now, a beginning has been made by the NRAA and two partners, and it is a good one, even if I say so myself. The state (and union territories, let’s not forget those usually post-colonial pockets, their renown coming from some anachronistic curiousity) has been and remains the default administrative unit for measuring progress or deprivation, when such measurement is done by the central government. That Andhra Pradesh with 23 districts and a population of 84 million should be considered a state in the same manner as Manipur, with nine districts and a population 2.7 million is a typological mismatch that has rarely bothered our planners, else they would have long ago abandoned the ‘state’ as the object to be measured.

What the districts look like in the RAPI list

What the districts look like in the RAPI list

It needn’t have been so rickety, this basis for understanding lesser administrative units. For a spell of some six or seven years, until about 2004-05, the Planning Commission had calculated district domestic products. It was an extremely limited data set and the methods used are not clear, but despite its faults, the series provided a glimpse of economic activity at the level of the district, and was therefore more readily understandable by those working in talukas or tehsils – the administrative remove was no more than a level. In around 2007-08, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard) released a district-denominated index to aid planning for rural credit. There was a pilot data set provided for Maharashtra, and I always wondered why Nabard, with all its experience and reach and numerous partners, had not followed that experiment with a country-wide district index.

What we have now has enough potential to serve as India’s first district-denominated agriculture and rural development index. Even if the Ministries of Agriculture and of Rural Development ignore it (for the usual absurd reasons that have to do with the gaseous egos of ministers and their puffed-up underlings, IAS cadres not excepted) the index set is sound enough to begin being adopted by institutions and research groups (as also NGOs and CBOs) and thereby expanded and developed in wiki-like manner.

The impetus comes from the National Rainfed Area Authority which has worked with the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA, in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh) and the Indian Agricultural Statistics Research Institute (IASRI, in New Delhi). I am pleasantly surprised by the uncharacteristic cooperation between these institutions, not because India’s NARS doesn’t have within it people with skill and who care, but because the indefatigably short-sighted lot running the Indian Council of Agricultural Research have traditionally scotched all such socially relevant collaboration. So, encomiums are due to CRIDA and IASRI for being true to their potential.

A farmer in the district of Mysore, Karnataka state, prepares her rice field.

A farmer in the district of Mysore, Karnataka state, prepares her rice field.

And that is how we have the ‘Rainfed Areas Prioritisation Index’ (naturally collapsible into RAPI) which combines a natural resource index and an integrated livelihood index. Thus, each one of 499 districts (urban and urbanised districts are excluded, as are districts in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala, as cultivation in the districts of these three states is considered to be predominantly horticulture). The natural resource index has seven variables: rainfall, drought, available water content of soil, area under degraded and waste lands, rainfed area, status of ground water, and irrigation intensity. The integrated livelihood index has three variables: socio-economic index, health and sanitation index and infrastructure index.

These two indices have been combined by assigning a weight of two-thirds to the natural resource priority index of a district, and weight of one-third to the livelihood priority index of a district, and so to derive the district’s Rainfed Areas Prioritisation Index (RAPI). Based on their RAPI scores, the three index developers have identified 167 districts, the top one-third of the full list, as needing attention with programmes designed to strengthen and support rainfed farming.

[You can find an Excel file with the 167 districts here. There are, in order of frequency per state, 32 in Rajasthan, 30 in Madhya Pradesh, 16 in Karnataka, 16 in Maharashtra, 13 in Gujarat, 13 in Jharkhand, 11 in Uttar Pradesh, 9 in Andhra Pradesh, 8 in Orissa, 6 in Tamil Nadu, 5 in Chhattisgarh, 4 in Bihar, 2 in Assam and 2 in West Bengal.]

The RAPI has come at an important moment. The Twelfth Five Year plan is now a year old and the budgetary support given to India’s two ‘flagship’ (how did this term become so popular? The Bharat Nirman seems to be all flag and never mind the ship) agriculture programmes – the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and the National Food Security Mission – continues to increase. How to measure whether the RKVY and the NFSM are money well spent, or ill spent. The RAPI should help there, but far more important, it is the first genuinely local framework for gauging a district’s endowment of agricultural, human, natural and econmic resources. Wish it well.

Does a food price index plateau signal rising real food prices?

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The short red line is more worrying than the gyrating blue line.

The short red line is more worrying than the gyrating blue line.

We have from the FAO this month (that means February 2013, released in March), the updated FAO food price index coinciding with its Crop Prospects and Food Situation. This dual release gives us the opportunity to look at the interplay between the FAO food price index and its cereals sub-index, what the ‘Prospects’ quarterly has said about cereals worldwide, and what recent index numbers seem to be telling us.

First the tale of the unfiltered numbers. The FAO Food Price Index averaged 210 points in February 2013, unchanged from January but – FAO points out with what sounds to me like mild relief – “five points (2.5%) below the corresponding month last year”. More interesting is the observation by the food price indexers that “since November the Index has moved within a narrow 210-212 point range, as increases in the prices of dairy products and oils/fats were largely balanced out by declines in the prices of cereals and sugar”.

The usual blue pair

The usual blue pair

If you dwell awhile on the chart I have made for just the cereals sub-index of the FAO food price index (above left), which traces the journey of this sub-index from 2008 January, you will see that from 2008 July it plunged and stayed low (relatively for this period) until 2010 June, and then the ascent to the 230-250 level was steep. And there it has remained. The short red line describes a cumulative average for the 12 months until 2013 February, and the trend for this ‘alarum’ (I am partial to medieval English) is quite clear, forsooth.

Since we have discussed earlier what the FAO food price index in fact describes, which is not what food consumers pay for their daily several hundred grams (if that, sadly) of staples, this does to me look like we can read a plateau as signalling persistent high and rising true cost of food to consumer. Perhaps I should petition the folks inside that citadel on Rome’s Viale delle Terme di Caracalla to rename their index into an indicator.

The leading wheat producers for 2013

The leading wheat producers for 2013

But only if they are not otherwise busy answering telephone calls (or telegrams, as they did in an earlier and far less frenetic age) about the ‘early prospects for 2013 cereal crops’ which is the star of this quarter’s Crop Prospects and Food Situation bulletin. For, here is what they have said:

“FAO’s first forecast for world wheat production in 2013 stands at 690 million tonnes, representing an increase of 4.3 percent from the 2012 harvest and, the second largest crop on record after that of 2011. The increase is expected mostly in Europe, driven by an expansion in area in response to high prices, and a recovery in yields from below-average levels in some parts last year, notably the Russian Federation.”

Cereals production in Asia

Cereals production in Asia

Elsewhere in Europe, we have been told, prospects are satisfactory in the Russian Federation (a big jump, as the chart shows). In neighbouring Ukraine, a large recovery in wheat output is forecast. In North America, the outlook in the USA has been diplomatically called “less favourable than among the other major wheat producing countries” (makes me wonder if the Prospects authors have been fraternising too frequently with UNFCCC staff). Perhaps they haven’t yet noticed the US Drought Monitor, which may explain the “aggregate wheat output is tentatively forecast to decrease” for the USA.

In Asia, the Prospects expects “a record wheat output of some 121 million tonnes in 2013” in the People’s Republic (of China, newly minus Wen Jiabao as premier). It also expects “a record wheat output” in Pakistan and “another bumper crop” in India (what will that do to the already mountainous central stocks of cereals?). Australia and wheat can be summarised (by me, not them) in a word: uncertain.

Written by makanaka

March 7, 2013 at 20:23

A tale of five food indices

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Food and agricultural commodities indices behaviour from 2009 January to 2012 November. There are five series - FAO's food index, FAO's cereals index, Unctad's food sub-index, the IMF's food price index, the IGC's grains and oilseeds index.

Food and agricultural commodities indices behaviour from 2009 January to 2012 November. There are five series – FAO’s food index, FAO’s cereals index, Unctad’s food sub-index, the IMF’s food price index, the IGC’s grains and oilseeds index.

Agricultural commodity and food price indices have ended 2012, as a group, at their highest levels in the last four years.

This chart uses index data from five series – two are from FAO (its food index and its cereals index), there is the Unctad food sub-index (of its long-running commodities index), there is the IMF food price index (which includes cereals, vegetable oils and sugar), and there is the IGC grains and oilseeds index.

I have set them all to ‘1’ in 2009 January and observed their behaviour over 46 months (until 2012 November).
For about a year between 2009 July and 2010 August, there was fairly wide divergence between this group of indices, the FAO cereals index and the IGC index maintaining a lower track, the IMF cereals index not rising above 10% of its starting value, the Unctad food index being volatile and the FAO food index at the top.

From 2010 July to 2011 March all the indices rose steeply and in concert. Thereafter till around 2012 July there was a slow general decline (from about 40% above starting point to about 25% above starting point) for all the indices (with the FAO food index about 15% above the rest).

From 2012 July there has been another steep, albeit shorter, jump for all, and at 2012 November the series at the top is the IGC index, with all five at about 35% to 45% above their starting values.

Written by makanaka

January 4, 2013 at 09:55

For 2011 February, another new peak for world food prices, FAO index rises higher

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The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said that global food prices increased for the eighth consecutive month in February, with prices of all commodity groups monitored rising again, except for sugar.

FAO said it expects a tightening of the global cereal supply and demand balance in 2010-11. In the face of a growing demand and a decline in world cereal production in 2010, global cereal stocks this year are expected to fall sharply because of a decline in inventories of wheat and coarse grains. International cereal prices have increased sharply with export prices of major grains up at least 70% from February last year.

“Unexpected oil price spikes could further exacerbate an already precarious situation in food markets,” said David Hallam, Director of FAO’s Trade and Market Division. “This adds even more uncertainty concerning the price outlook just as plantings for crops in some of the major growing regions are about to start,” he added.

Food Price Index – The FAO Food Price Index averaged 236 points in February, up 2.2% from January, the highest record in real and nominal terms, since FAO started monitoring prices in 1990. The Cereal Price Index, which includes prices of main food staples such as wheat, rice and maize, rose by 3.7% in February (254 points), the highest level since July 2008.

The FAO Dairy Price Index averaged 230 points in February, up 4% from January, but well below its peak in November 2007. The FAO Oils/Fats Price Index rose marginally to 279 points in February, a level just below the peak recorded in June 2008. The FAO Meat Price Index averaged 169 points in February, up 2% from January. By contrast, the FAO Sugar Price Index averaged 418 points in February, slightly below the previous month but still 16% higher than February 2010.

Cereal supply and demand – FAO expects winter crops in the northern hemisphere to be generally favourable and forecasts global wheat production to increase by around 3% in 2011.This assumes a recovery in wheat production in major producing countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. So far, conditions of winter crops in those countries are generally favourable.

The latest estimate for the world cereal production in 2010 is 8 million tonnes more than was anticipated in December but still slightly below 2009. This month’s upward revision reflects mostly higher estimates for production in Argentina, China and Ethiopia.

The forecast for world cereal utilisation in 2010-11 has been revised up by 18 million tonnes since December. The bulk of the revision reflects adjustments to the feed and industrial utilization of coarse grains. Larger use of maize for ethanol production in the USA and statistical adjustments to China’s historical (since 2006-07) supply and demand balance for maize are the main reasons for the revision.