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The weekly intelligencer

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Indices, prices, data series, readings and jottings of note over the last week, fortnight and month, compiled for the week beginning 6 August 2017.

Quick Estimates of Index of Industrial Production (IIP) with base 2011-12 for the month of May 2017, released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Central Statistics Office. The General Index for the month of May 2017 stands at 124.3, which is 1.7% higher as compared to the level in the month of May 2016.

India Meteorological Department, Hydromet Division. Until 2 August 2017, 67% of the districts have recorded cumulative rainfall of normal, excess or large excess and 33% of the districts have recorded cumulative rainfall of deficient or large deficient. This compares with 69% and 31% respectively at the same time last year.

Ministry Of Commerce and Industry, Office Of The Economic Adviser. The official Wholesale Price Index for All Commodities (Base: 2011-12=100) for the month of June 2017 declined by 0.1% to 112.7 (provisional) from 112.8 (provisional) for the previous month.

Ministry of Water Resources, Central Water Commission. As on 3 August 2017 the total live storage capacity of the 91 major reservoirs is 157.799 billion cubic metres (BCM) which is about 62% of the total estimated live storage capacity of 253.388 BCM. As per reservoir storage bulletin dated 03 August 2017, live storage available in these reservoirs is 67.683 BCM, which is 43% of total water storage capacity of these reservoirs. Last year the live storage in these reservoirs for the corresponding period was 65.109 BCM and the average of last 10 years was 69.510 BCM.

Reserve Bank Of India Bulletin, Weekly Statistical Supplement. 4 August 2017. Aggregate deposits Rs 106,254 billion. Bank credit Rs 76.888 billion. Money stock: Rs 14,689 billion currency with the public, Rs 101,600 billion time deposits with banks.

Ministry of Agriculture. The total sown area as on 4 August 2017 stands at 878.23 lakh hectare as compared to 855.85 lakh hectare at this time last year. Rice has been sown/transplanted in 280.03 lakh hectare, pulses in 121.28 lakh hectare, coarse cereals in 156.95 lakh hectare, oilseeds in 148.88 lakh hectare, sugarcane in 49.71 lakh hectare and cotton in 114.34 lakh hectare.

Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Price Monitoring Cell in the Department of Consumer Affairs. Maximum prices recorded (per kilo and per litre) amongst the set of 100 cities monitored during the week of 23-29 July: Rice 52, Wheat 45, Atta (Wheat) 50, Gram Dal 132, Tur/ Arhar Dal 132, Urad Dal 150, Moong Dal 140, Masoor Dal 110, Sugar 52, Milk 65, Groundnut Oil 180, Mustard Oil 170, Vanaspati 120, Soya Oil 110, Sunflower Oil 130, Palm Oil 110, Gur 68, Tea Loose 360, Salt Pack (Iodised) 22, Potato 35, Onion 45, Tomato 100.

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How our kisans bested drought to give 252.2 mt

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RG_2016_foodgrains3_201608Bharat has maintained a level of foodgrains production that is above 250 million tons for the year 2015-16. This is the most important signal from the Fourth Advance Estimates of agricultural production, which have just been released by the Ministry of Agriculture. The ‘advance estimates’, four in the agricultural year, mark the progression from target production for the year to actual output.

For this rapid overview I have compared the 2015-16 fourth estimates, which will with minor adjustments become the final tally, with two other kinds of production figures. One is the five-year average until 2014-15 and the second is the ten-year average until 2014-15. While a yearwise comparison is often used to show the variation in produced crops (which are affected by price changes, policies, adequacy of the monsoon and climatic conditions), it is important to compare a current year’s nearly final crop production estimate with longer term averages. Doing so allows us to dampen the effects of variations in individual years and so gauge the performance in the current year against a wider recent historical pattern.

In this way we see that for all foodgrains (rice, wheat, coarse cereals and pulses) the production for 2015-16 is about three million tons below the five-year average but about 13.5 million tons above the ten-year average. These two comparisons need to be considered against the growing conditions our kisans dealt with during 2015 and 2014, both of which were drought years. They also need to be viewed against economic and demographic conditions, which have led to migration of agriculturalists and cultivators from villages into urban settlements (hence less available hands in the field), and the incremental degradation of agro-ecological growing regions (because of both urban settlements that grow and because of increased industrialisation, and therefore industrial pollution and the contamination of soil and water).

That the total quantity of foodgrains is adequate however has been due to the production of rice and wheat (चावल, गेंहूँ) both being above the five and ten year averages. There is undoubtedly regional variation in production (the February to May months in 2016 were marked by exceedingly hot weather in several growing regions, with difficult conditions made worse by water shortages). There is likewise the effects of more transparent procurement policies and stronger commitments being followed by state governments to adhere to or better the recommendations on minimum support prices. The host of contributing factors require inquiry and study.

What requires more urgent attention are the production figures for coarse cereals and pulses. Coarse cereals (which includes jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, small millets and barley – ज्वार, बाजरा, मक्का, रागी, छोटे अनाज, जौ) at just under 40 million tons is 4.4 million tons under the five-year average and 1.4 million tons under the ten-year average. Likewise pulses (which includes tur or arhar, gram, urad, moong, other kharif and other rabi pulses – अरहर, चना, उरद, मूँग, अन्य खरीफ दालें, अन्य रबी दालें) is 1.6 million tons under the five-year average and only 0.3 million tons above the ten-year average. The low total production of these crop types, coarse cereals and pulses, have continued to be a challenge for over a generation. The surprisingly good outputs of wheat (9.3 mt above the ten-year average) and rice (5.5 mt above the ten-year average) should not be allowed to obscure the persistent problems signalled by the outputs of coarse cereals and pulses.

Old कृषि for new भारत

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For a civilisation whose agricultural traditions are some ten millennia old, ‘agro-ecology’ is but yesterday’s word, and although well-meaning, pales before the vistas of meaning that have been encoded into our cultivating practices. These are profoundly spiritual, and until a few generations ago, embodied a philosophy about nature, ‘prakruti’ (प्रकृति), that ranged far beyond the definitions that have become en vogue over the last few decades: ecological, sustainable, holistic and so on. This brief itinerary traces some of the causes that have led to the vulgarisation of agriculture (कृषि) in Bharat, and describes the means with which to find renewal.

RG_krishi_bharat_1_201606Menus at fast food restaurants and counters are today as mystifying as the ‘apps’ that are to be found crowding on the screens of young people’s mobile phones. There are now, in our bigger cities in India, ‘apps’ to buy food with (or through). These seem to be popular with a generation that is young – usually 20 to 30 years old – and which lives in shared rented flats near their places of work, which often is the info-tech industry, and is otherwise the finance, retail, services, logistics or trading industries. If there is one aspect common to where these food ‘app’, or menu ‘app’, users work then it is that they do not work in what my generation knew with some familiarity as the manufacturing or the public sectors.

This is a distressing trend, for we have always been a civilisation that counted our farmers, rivers, forests, temples and traditions. In Sanskrit there is a word used to describe the farmer. It is ‘annadaata’, which is, the giver of grain (अन्नदाता). This reverential word is found in every major language spoken and written in India today. The ‘annadaata’ fed his or her family, fed those who needed rice, gave the rice to be used for the ceremonies and religious observances in the temples, sold the rice to the dealers in grain. For many generations, the forms in which our farmers harvested the crops they cultivated were the forms in which they were bought, stored, cooked and eaten. Even during the formative decades of ‘modern’ India – that is, the years after our Independence and until the time when we began to be considered by the Western world as a country becoming a ‘market economy’ – a household rarely owned a refrigerator.

RG_krishi_bharat_2_201606We bought rice, vegetables and the occasional fish or poultry from the market, cooked them fresh at home, and ate our meals fresh. A vegetarian meal may keep overnight to serve as a breakfast for the following morning, and in north and parts of central India, so will ‘roti’ (रोटी) made out of wheat or barley. To keep food longer, it had to be processed, that is, its nature had to change so that it would not spoil in the climate. Thus, rice was commonly parboiled and stored, or parboiled and flattened to become ‘puffed’. Every rice-growing and rice-consuming region, from a single valley to a river basin, had its own methods and preferences of keeping food from spoiling, and finding ways to store that semi-prepared food. This was a kind of processing and most of it was done in our homes.

Surely it wasn’t that long ago? But memories such as these, so vivid to 50 and 60 year olds, are today seen as evoking times of hardship, want and shortage, are seen as recalling times that an agrarian country suffered ‘hunger’ before it became globalised and a ‘market’ of some kind. Such sharp experiences, for that is what the most vivid memories are made of, are considered to be uncomfortably close to the era when famines were recorded, one after another, during the 19th century especially (but also the Bengal famine of 1943-44).

Those appalling records are presented as the rationale for the set of ideas and practice (technical and economic in approach and intent) that came to be called self-sufficiency in foodgrain, which I remember first hearing as a boy, and which much later has come to be known as food security. The links were taught to us early – famine, food shortage, hunger – but what was left out was more important, and that was the policies of the colonial occupiers (the East India Company and then Great Britain, as the country used to be called) and the consequences of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and particularly in western Europe.

RG_krishi_bharat_3_201606Like the devastating famines in India of the 19th century, the Bengal famine of 1943-44 was an artificial shortage of foodgrain, for what had been harvested was shipped out instead of being sold or distributed at home. These aspects of the relatively recent famines of India, which robbed our ancestors of parents and children, were hidden until we uncovered them out of curiosity about food histories that must have been written (or retold) but were scarcely to be found.

Even today, after so much research (especially by the last generation) has become available about the effects of colonial policies on the movements and shortages of food in India, the bogey of food shortage and hunger is still dressed in the garb of technical shortcoming, that our farmers (किसान) do not know how to increase yields because their knowledge is deficient, insufficient, inefficient. It is a slander of a collective that has supported through its efforts and wisdom a civilisation (भारतवर्ष) for centuries.

As it was with the colonial era, so it is with the pervasive apparatus of trade and finance which finds its theatre in globalisation, or the integrated world economy. One of its first tasks was to denigrate and run down a complex and extremely rich tradition of agricultural knowledge – but even to call it ‘agricultural knowledge’ is misleading, for its diverse strands of knowledge, awareness and practice encompassed our relationship with nature and natural forces, and our duties towards state, for faith and religion, towards society – while simultaneously promoting a ‘scientific’ approach that could derive its authority only by first asserting that what it was replacing was not science.

[This article is the first part of a series of four. Part two, ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’, is here.]

Regions of wheat, lands of rice

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The return of budgetary focus towards agriculture and the economies of rural India will help deepen our understanding about where crops are grown and for whom. These are still more often described in national aggregate terms of annual estimates, than by season, state and the growing appetites of urban agglomerations.

This could change over the next few years, especially as the so-called services sector shrinks both by the number of people it employs and by its importance to the national economy. Services – a peculiarly invented term that was quite unknown and unused when I was a teenager – has come about because of the financialisation of those portions of social activity which were done at small scale, informally and as adjunct activities to the work of the public sector, the manufacturers and factories, and the great numbers of cultivators (and those working on agricultural produce). The many enforced errors of contemporary economics means that this will continue to change – not without pain and confusion – but that social activity that has some economic dimension will return to what it was two generations earlier.

While it does, we find there are differences in the concentration of food staples produced – that is, how much by quantity do certain regions grow our food staples as a significant fraction of national production of that food staple. This is more readily available as state quantities instead of district. I have suggested to the Ministry of Agriculture that this ought to be monitored not only at the level of the district but also by the agro-ecological zone, or region, for we have 120 in India, and they represent varying climatic conditions, soil typologies, river basins and cultivation systems.

At present, what we see then is that for rice and wheat, the top three producing states account for 36.7% (rice) and 62% (wheat) of the country’s production. This distribution – or concentration – should cause a review of the crop choices that our kisans make in the growing districts and agro-ecological zones. For a simple pointer such as this tells us that 37 out of every 100 quintals of rice grown in India are grown in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh and that 62 out of every 100 quintals of wheat grown in India are grown in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh.

The corresponding distribution/concentration with coarse cereals is better than wheat but not better than rice for 45.4% of total coarse cereals are grown in Rajasthan, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Likewise, 48.8% of all pulses are grown in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. The tale is similar with oilseeds (63.8% in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat), with sugarcane (73% in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka) and cotton (69.8% in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh).

With horticulture – that is, vegetables and fruit – there is less state-level concentration to be seen. India’s kisans grow about 170 million tons of vegetables and about 85 million tons of fruit a year and their concentrations vary – West Bengal and Odisha grow a great deal of brinjal, Maharashtra grows onions, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal lead in potatoes, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka grow the most tomatoes, and so on. Overall however, the range of distribution amongst the large states of their produce of vegetables and fruit is not as concentrated as with the food staples. The reasons for this difference can tell us a great deal about the need for district and watershed-level food security, employing as always sound zero budget farming techniques (no external inputs) and local and indigenous knowledge of cultivation techniques.

How ADB cooks the climate pot

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The Asian Development Bank has, amongst the world’s multilateral development banks, been a bit of a latecomer to the area of climate financing with the help of modelling. Its senior peers – the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – have been at it for a while, with the World Bank being rather in its own league if one was to judge by the tonnage of reports it has printed. The ADB probably holds its own on the matter against the Inter-American Development Bank and the African Development Bank, but this latest effort, I think, pushes it ahead of the last two.

Not for any reason that would gladden a farmer or a municipal worker, for that is not the audience intended for ‘Assessing the costs of climate change and adaptation in South Asia’ (Asian Development Bank, 2014), which was released to the Asian world a few days ago. But the volume should immensely help the modelling crews from a dozen and more international agencies that specialise in this arcane craft. Providing the scientific basis around which a multilateral lending bank can plan its climate financing strategies will help the craft find a future. Rather less sunny is the outlook for states and districts, cities and panchayats, who may find an over-zealous administrator or two quoting blithely from such a report while in search of elusive ‘mitigation’.

Many reassuringly complex diagrams must only mean we need bigger loans?

Many reassuringly complex diagrams must only mean we need bigger loans?

In my view, this volume is useless. It is so because it is based on a variety of modelling computations which have their origin in the methods used for the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (that was released in 2007). The permanent problem with all such ‘earth science’ modelling approaches is that it uses global data sets which must be ‘downscaled’ to local regions. No matter how sophisticated they are claimed to be by their inventors and sponsors, such models can only work with regular and large sets of well-scrubbed data that have been collected the same way over a long period of time and recorded reliably. This may serve a ‘global’ model (which is irrelevant to us in the districts) but in almost every single case of ‘downscaling’, a scaling down may make a smattering of sense if there is some comparable data relating to the region for which the scaling is taking place. And this correlation, I can assure you, is not possible 99 times out of 100.

But that doesn’t bother the ADB, because it is a bank, it must find a way for Asian countries to agree to taking loans that help them mitigate the effects of rampaging climate change, as this report tries to convince us about from 2030 to 2050 and 2080 (by which time those who have cashed in their climate technology transfer stock options will have passed on). Which is why the ADB has said its unimpeachable analysis is based on “a three-step modeling approach” and this is “(i) regional climate modeling (ii) physical impact assessment, and (iii) economic assessment”, the last aspect being what they’re betting the thermometer on.

The numbers that have emerged from the ADB’s computable general equilibrium model must be satisfyingly enormous to the bank’s thematic project directors and country directors. For the scenario modellers have provided the ammunition for the bank to say: “The region requires funding with the magnitude of 1.3% of GDP on average per annum between 2010 and 2050 under the business-as-usual-1 scenario. The cost could rise to up to 2.3% (upper range) of GDP per annum taking into account climate uncertainties. To avoid climate change impact under the business-as-usual-2 scenario, adaptation cost of around $73 billion per annum on the average is required between now and 2050.”

I could not, in this needlessly dense and poorly written volume, find a mention of which rice strains have been measured for their yields in the example given for India, when the ADB report makes some dire forecasts about how yields will be lowered or will plunge under several forecast conditions. Perhaps they were buried in some footnote I have overlooked, but considering that the International Rice Research Institute (one of the more dangerous CGIAR monster institutes) has in its genebank more than 40,000 varieties from India, and considering that rice conservationist Debal Deb cultivates 920 varieties himself, the ADB (and its modelling troupe) talking about rice ‘yield’ means nothing without telling us which variety in which region. And that sort of negligence naturally leads me to ask what sort of thermometers they consulted while assembling these models. [This is also posted at India Climate Portal.]

India’s crop quotas for a rain-troubled year

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In this graphic, the size of the crop squares are relative to each other. The numbers are in million tons. Rice, wheat, pulses, coarse cereals, sugarcane. oilseeds and the fibre crops are the major categories for the 2014-15 crop production targets. What is always left out from the 'foodgrain'-based projections are vegetables and fruit, and these I have included based on the 2013-14 advance estimates for horticultural crops.

In this graphic, the size of the crop squares are relative to each other. The numbers are in million tons. Rice, wheat, pulses, coarse cereals, sugarcane. oilseeds and the fibre crops are the major categories for the 2014-15 crop production targets. What is always left out from the ‘foodgrain’-based projections are vegetables and fruit, and these I have included based on the 2013-14 advance estimates for horticultural crops.

Your allocation for the year could be 136 kilograms of vegetables, provided the monsoon holds good, which at this point in its annual career does not look likely. We need the veggies (not just potato, onion, cabbage and tomato) as much as fruit. But the central government is more traditionally concerned with ‘foodgrain’, by which is meant rice, wheat, pulses and coarse cereals.

That is what is meant by the ‘foodgrain production targets’, which have been issued by the Ministry of Agriculture for 2014-15 – as usual with scant sign of whether the Ministries of Earth Sciences and Water Resources were invited to a little chat over tea and samosas. I would have expected at least a “what do you think dear colleagues, is 94 million tons of wheat wildly optimistic given the clear blue skies that o’ertop us from Lutyens’ Delhi to Indore?” and at least some assenting murmurings from those foregathered.

But no, such niceties are not practiced by our bureaucrats. So the Ministry of Agriculture gruffly rings up the state agriculture departments, bullies them to send in the projections that make the Big Picture add up nicely, sends the tea-stained sheaf to the senior day clerk (Grade IV), and the annual hocus-pocus is readied once more. What the departments in the states say they are confident about is represented in the chart panel below, which shows you for rice, wheat, coarse cereals and pulses the produce expected from the major states. The question is: will monsoon 2014 co-operate?

Rice, wheat, coarse cereals and pulses, and the states which grow them the most, targets for 2014-15, using data from the Ministry of Agriculture

Rice, wheat, coarse cereals and pulses, and the states which grow them the most, targets for 2014-15, using data from the Ministry of Agriculture

Written by makanaka

July 12, 2014 at 18:25

Fewer cereals still for more rupees

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The Labour Bureau of the Government of India has done us a most valuable service by disaggregating from the consumer price indices, separate indices for the individual items that a household typically buys, whether every day, periodically (weekly or monthly) and even annual purchases.

I have charted here the data for the cereal and cereal substitutes. This group consists of rice, wheat, maida (flour), suji (coarse wheat flour), bread, sewai (rice vermicelli), maize atta, wheat atta, tapioca, jowar, sago, ragi, bajra, maize, sattu (ground cereals) and the grouping of beaten or flattened rice (chira, muri, khoi, lawa (CMKL)).

The chart describes the movement – over 96 months from 2006 January to 2013 December – of the price indices (not the prices) for these foods. These are calculated as all-India prices using the consumer price index for industrial workers (CPI-IW) and the base is 2001 = 100.

There are several significant findings from examining the movement of this group of price indices. (1) Over 2008, 2009 and 2010 the rise was steadily upward with a pronounced spike in some items that lasted from 2009 August to 2010 May. This is noteworthy as no spike is visible (for the group as a whole) during 2007-08 when there was a worldwide steep rise in the prices of foods.

(2) From around 2010 May, maida, maize atta, CMKL, bread, wheat atta, rice, wheat increased at a muted rate and even remained flat over short periods whereas other cereals and cereal substitutes rose steeply and/or showed volatility in their indices. (3) From 2012 June the price indices of all items in this group rose steadily and steeply – more steeply than at any time since 2006 January and have continued this accelerated pace until the end of the recorded period, 2013 December.

This is another excellent release into the public domain of valuable indicators by the Labour Bureau which help describe the relentless rise in the prices of food staples in India. As the Labour Bureau has shown, whether it is the consumer price indices it maintains or whether it is the individual goods and services necessary to maintain an acceptable minimum standard of living for the households engaged in agriculture, manufacture or which are dependent on self-employment, the so-called ‘India growth story’ that the ruling government and its supporters speak triumphantly about in fact imposes burdens on the working classes that have grown heavier every month.

Ten reliable rice years

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The AMIS prices panel as we find it in 2014 January. Weekly international rice prices (top) are for Thai rice, which have been on a plateau from 2012 Jan to around 2013 April, after which they declined. Rice futures prices (60-day average) have also been on a very gentle upward slope (middle) since 2012 Jan after pronounced swings to that point from 2010 Jan. Rice price volatility was dampened during the last quarter of 2011 until third quarter 2013 (compared to the previous two years) and has moved slowly lower over three years (bottom). Charts: FAO-AMIS

The AMIS prices panel as we find it in 2014 January. Weekly international rice prices (top) are for Thai rice, which have been on a plateau from 2012 Jan to around 2013 April, after which they declined. Rice futures prices (60-day average) have also been on a very gentle upward slope (middle) since 2012 Jan after pronounced swings to that point from 2010 Jan. Rice price volatility was dampened during the last quarter of 2011 until third quarter 2013 (compared to the previous two years) and has moved slowly lower over three years (bottom). Charts: FAO-AMIS

International grains traders rarely consider the historicity of what they deal with day in and day out. Wheat up today, maize down tomorrow, soy futures worth considering for next month, milk powder positions to be liquidated, and so on. Hold what you can profit from only so long as there is profit to be made, and futures are nothing but bets you’ve studied carefully.

But even for the hard-boiled traders, the last decade of rice has made them turn to look back and consider the curiosities of the market. Inventories of rice, all over the world, have been growing slowly and steadily for close to a decade. Now that trend, which since 2003 has been one of the longest unbroken trends in world agriculture, is ending. The change is being attributed, in the commodity exchanges and grain trading floors, to what is called a ‘downgrade’ of supplies of rice in India by the International Grains Council.

The first such forecast decline in world rice stocks, of about one million tons, means that the IGC is estimating world rice inventories at the close of 2013-14 to be 108 million tons. The curious aspect is that India is expecting a bumper rice harvest for 2013-14, and although IGC says world inventories will drop slightly (the end of the trend), there is also a reduced estimate for world consumption of rice, which is another curiosity.

According to the traders Thailand, the top rice exporter for years, has been stockpiling rice “at prices some 40%-50% above the market” and thereby prompting credit rating agencies like Moody’s to claim that the cost of the Thai programme was “threatening the country’s sovereign debt rating”.

This is plain rubbish. Traders and commodity exchanges do not grow rice to feed their families and sell if there is a small surplus to sell. The finance bots in predatory agencies like Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch – considered the three largest by the scale of their work – don’t know the difference between a cauliflower and millet and can grow neither. Thai, Indian and African small farmers could not care less whether credit rating agencies exist and our governments should learn what true sovereignty means from our small farmers.

The FAO and IGC food price indexes and their sub-indices. For FAO the chart shows the FAO Food price Index and the cereals, oils and fats and dairy sub-indices over the last five years. For IGC the lower chart shows the IGC Grains and Oilseeds Index, also over the last five years, with the wheat, maize and rice sub-indices. The IGC rice sub-index has also recorded a plateau from 2012 January onwards with a more pronounced decline setting in from 2013 August. Charts: FAO-AMIS

The FAO and IGC food price indexes and their sub-indices. For FAO the chart shows the FAO Food price Index and the cereals, oils and fats and dairy sub-indices over the last five years. For IGC the lower chart shows the IGC Grains and Oilseeds Index, also over the last five years, with the wheat, maize and rice sub-indices. The IGC rice sub-index has also recorded a plateau from 2012 January onwards with a more pronounced decline setting in from 2013 August. Charts: FAO-AMIS

The odd tale of rice was given a late twist by two cyclones. One is Cyclone Phailin which struck the eastern Indian coast in the first week of October 2013. And he other is Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in early November 2013. Vietnam is to supply 500,000 tons of rice to the Philippines, which has sought the supplies to boost state reserves depleted by the relief operations after Typhoon Haiyan.

The FAO’s Rice Market Monitor for 2013 November said: “Although accounting for much of the worsening in the global outlook, Asia is still expected to sustain growth in world rice production in 2013. According to the latest forecasts, the region is to harvest 672.7 million tonnes (448.6 million tonnes, milled), 1.2% more than in 2012. Foremost among countries responsible for the increase are India, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh. By contrast, drought in China’s central and eastern provinces exacted a heavy toll on the intermediate and late rice crops, which may bring about the first production decline in the country since 2003.”

I find the FAO Rice Market Monitor more detailed than what the IGC puts out (although IGC’s public offerings are but a distillation of what subscribers to the information service obtain). The FAO Monitor has also added that given a poor delivery record so far, Thailand appears unlikely to boost its exports beyond the relatively low level of last year. And that expectations have improved for India, which may replicate the 2012 record performance, with Australia, Cambodia, China (Mainland), Egypt, Pakistan, Paraguay and the USA also forecast to export more.

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.)

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).