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Eating out, or India’s exorbitant world food bill

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(This article was published by Vijayvaani in June 2017.)

In the Konkan, small electrically operated oil presses that ingest limited amounts of dried copra to expel oil for households to cook with are common. These can press enough in a day (electricity supply permitting) to fill several dozen glass bottles with coconut oil. As such a filled bottle of freshly pressed coconut oil usually sells for Rs 130 to Rs 160, the price per litre may be estimated at about Rs 180. This price compares quite well with the price range of Rs 190 to Rs 220 that is paid by the household buyer for a litre of branded coconut oil.

But it compares not at all with the trade price of an imported shipment of sunflower-seed or safflower oil which in 2016 was imported into India at an average price of just under Rs 60 per kilogram. India imported 1.53 million tons of sunflower-seed or safflower oil last year, and the Rs 9,080 crore spent on it pushed the total amount spent on imported ‘edible’ oils to beyond the Rs 70,000 crore mark. [The cultivation of oilseeds, like the cultivation of all ‘commercial’ crops that are not food staples, is a matter of crop choice, for which see ‘Why our kisans must make sustainable crop choices’.]

Palm oil

Both by weight and by the total amount paid for it, palm oil is the most visible imported food commodity in India today, and has been for the last five years. In 2016 India imported 8.25 million tons of palm oil (the supplying countries being Malaysia and Indonesia) for which the importing agencies paid Rs 38,900 crore. This immense annual flood of a sort of oil that ought never to have touched our shores let alone ooze into our home kitchens and canteens came at less than Rs 48 per kilogram last year. For this reason – the absurdly low price per landed ton of Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil, a low price that hides from the Indian consumer the deforestation devastation and species extinction in those countries, new cooking oil blends are being shoved into the foods market every other month by the edible oils industry.

Biomedical research which is independent and not either funded by or influenced by the oil palm industry and edible oil traders (which means the world’s largest commodity trading firms) indicates that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, leads to heart disease. It is considered less harmful than partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, but that is no redemption, for palm oil can under no circumstance be compared to our traditional cooking oils, coconut included.

The colonisation of the Indian kitchen and of the processed foods industry by palm oil has taken place only on the basis of landed price per ton, and that is why this oleaginous menace is now found in many everyday products such as biscuits and crackers and cookies (which school children develop addictions for), snack chips, shampoos, skin care and beauty products, and even pet food. [For a longer discussion on this problem see ‘Let them eat biscuits’ and ‘Cornflakes and oats invasion, 10 rupees at a time’.]

Soya oil

The next largest oily invasion is that of soyabean oil, of which 3.89 million tons (mt) was imported by India in 2016 (3.5 mt in 2015, 2.1 mt in 2014). Most of this was of Argentinian origin, just over 3 mt, and because more than 98% of the soya that is grown in Argentina is genetically modified (GM) the millions of tons of soyabean oil India has imported from that country has been used, blended, fractionated, caked and consumed by humans and animals with no indication about its GM origin and with no tests whatsoever for its effects on human and animal health. In terms of rupees per landed kilogram of soyabean oil, at about Rs 53 it is between palm oil and sunflower-seed or safflower oil. These landed prices show dramatically the effect exporting countries’ subsidies for a commodity category have on the related industry (edible oils) in an importing country.

Just as the vast palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia have waxed luxuriant in place of the old growth tropical rainforests that were cut down, turning the wildlife of these forests into hapless refugees, swelling the lucrative and thoroughly illegal forest timber trade, so too have the vast soya plantations in Argentina immiserated that country’s rural population and caused hunger because of the soya monocrop that has replaced their food biodiversity and whose need for fertiliser grew (as it did with Bt cotton in India) instead of shrinking. Both these long-drawn out eco-social catastrophes have been prolonged because of the inability or unwillingness of Indian consumers and regulatory agencies to acknowledge the faraway effects of our considerable ‘demand’ for palm oil and soyabean oil.

Pulses

Second to palm oil by weight amongst food commodities imported by India is pulses, of which 6.18 mt were imported in 2016 for a price of Rs 27,700 crore. The annual import pattern of a decade of 4 mt to more than 6 mt of imported pulses last year are a large fraction again of the average 18.7 mt of pulses a year grown in India for the last five years (until 2016-17).

Between 2003-04 and 2009-10 the quantity of pulses (tur or arhar, gram, moong, urad, other kharif and rabi pulses) harvested scarcely changed, averaging 14.2 mt over this period. There was a jump in 2010-11 to 18.2 mt and then another plateau followed until 2015-16, with the average for those six years being 17.7 mt. With the 22.7 mt estimated total pulses harvest in 2016-17, we can hope that another plateau is being scaled, and indeed this pattern of a plateau of several years followed by a modest increase does tend to indicate the following of a more agro-ecological cultivation of pulses (these being in rainfed farms) than intensive cultivation dependent on fertiliser, pesticide and commercial seed. [This does have much to do with cultivation practices in different regions, for which read ‘Seeing the growers of our food and where they are’.]

Sugar

What is a new concern is an item that by weight is fourth on the list of food commodity items imported, and that is sucrose: India imported 2.11 mt in 2016, in 2015 it was 1.6 mt, in 2014 it was 1.37 mt. The country with the greatest consumption of sugar, estimated by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Food and Public Distribution to be around 25 mt per year and growing disproportionately above the natural growth in the number of households, the processed and packaged food sector is the destination for the 2.11 mt of sucrose imported in 2016. A ready consumer for the sucrose is the commercial fruit juice sector, which bases its produce on a small amount of fruit pulp (vegetable extract is often added for bulk), water, chemical preservatives, food-like colours, artificial flavours and sweeteners.

The giant bulk of our sugarcane harvests distract from the ratios calculated – that a ton of raw sugar is obtained from 13 or 14 tons of cane. (This is usually net of jaggery / gur / khandsari and also net of molasses, which is used by distilleries and animal feed.) The mountains of bagasse – the crushed residue from which the sugar has been extracted – which remain are used in the paper and pulp industry, are an ingredient in cattle feed, and are used as biofuel. [Commercial crop or food crop is the question every cultivating household faces. See one district’s example in ‘Masses of cotton but mere scraps of vegetables’.]

Nuts

At 730,000 tons imported in 2016 and under the international trade category of ‘edible fruit and nuts’ is cashew nuts and Brazil nuts, on which Rs 8,345 crore was spent. A second important sub-category is ‘dates, figs, pineapples, avocados, guavas, mangoes and mangosteens, fresh or dried’ and 350,000 tons were imported in 2016 (for Rs 6,204 crore), while 280,000 tons of apples, pears and quinces, 182,000 tons of ‘other nuts, fresh or dried’ were also imported.

Under 23 main categories food commodities, which include 167 sub-categories and more than 400 subsidiary categories, the bill for imported foods (including dairy and beverages) and food products that we purchased from all over the world in 2016 was USD 22,041 million (USD 22.04 billion), or at the average rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2016, Rs 152,088 crore! In 2015 this bill was USD 20,877 million which at the average annual rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2015 was Rs 137,794 crore. In 2014 this bill was USD 19,372 million which at the average annual rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2014 was Rs 123,015 crore.

Globalisation

These amounts are astronomical and underline the strength of globalisation’s thrall by which we are gripped, exerted upon us not only by the World Trade Organisation but also by the agreements that India has signed (or intends to, and demonstrates intent by importing) with regional trade blocs of the European Union, the OECD and ASEAN. The financial allocations to some of the largest central government programmes, and the budgetary sums of some of the biggest successes in the last three years shrink in comparison to the size of these purchases: the spectrum auction in 2015 brought in Rs 110,000 crore, the 2016-17 central government pensions budget of Rs 128,166 crore, the Rs 47,410 crore transferred so far as subsidy directly into accounts under the Direct Benefit Transfer for LPG consumer scheme, the expenditure of Rs 51,902 crore in 2016-17 on MGNREGA (the highest since its inception).

Bringing about stability in farmers’ incomes (let alone an increase), encouraging rural and peri-urban entrepreneurship based on traditional foods cultivated by agro-ecological methods, ensuring that consumers can find [read about the link with inflation in ‘The relative speeds of urban inflation’] and are assured by the quality of food staples which are free of GM ingredients, chemicals and additives, and the saving of enormous sums of money can all be had if we but reduce and then cut out entirely the wanton import of food and beverages, and processed and packaged food products.

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Visiting our total household food budget

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RG_pvt_final_cons_exp

Twice as much over the 11 years until 2009-10, and three times as much over the 10 years until 2012-13. That has been the increase in rupee expenditure for this basket of foods.

The data is from the private final consumption series, calculated by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI). The totals (left scale of the chart) is in thousand crore rupees.

In this chart I have shown the expenditure (in current rupees) for: Cereals and Bread, Pulses, Sugar and Gur, Oils and Oilseeds, Fruits and Vegetables, Milk and Milk Products, and Meat Egg and Fish. These totals also indicate the size in rupees of the food industry – but do not include the processed and packaged food industry.

The rise in consumption expenditure expressed in rupees is a money measure alone, and not a quantity or volume measure. We can see that the portion of milk and milk products in this group has gone up from just over 18% to 25% over 14 years, and the portion of meat, eggs and fish has gone up from just under 9% to 12.5% over the same period.

From 2006 the rising trend of expenditure on fruits and vegetables became steeper than the rising trend of cereals and bread. In 2005-06 the portion spent on fruit and vegetables in this group was just over 26% and that has risen slightly to 28% in 2012-13. In contrast for cereals and bread, the portion of 27.5% in 2005-06 has dropped to just over 21% in 2012-13.

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.

Let them eat biscuits

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A cereal substitute habit for five rupees, in every flavour, colour and with fatty and sugary toppings.

A cereal substitute habit for five rupees, in every flavour, colour and with fatty and sugary toppings.

Five rupees and fifty grammes. That is the most popular price-quantity combination that biscuits in India are made available in. At 100-112 rupees per kilo, the budget biscuits are designed to be the cereal-based substitute for a fresh meal or food that quickly becomes a habit.

To examine what the 5, 10 and more expensive packets of biscuits deliver after quelling your hunger, I bought 27 different biscuit packets that are commonly available in retail shops that you find in metros and towns alike. Parle, Sunfeast and Britannia have several brands each in this price-to-weight category of biscuits.

Weight in grammes, the red marker, on the left scale. Price in rupees, the blue marker, on the right scale. For the 27 common biscuit brands examined.

Weight in grammes, the red marker, on the left scale. Price in rupees, the blue marker, on the right scale. For the 27 common biscuit brands examined.

Here are quick findings:

The most kilocalories per rupee: Parle Monaco Classic Regular (101), Parle Krackjack Original (100.4), Parle 20-20 Cashew Butter Cookies (98.8), Sunfeast Butter Cookies (98.8), Parle 20-20 Butter Cookies (98).

The most sugar in 50 grammes of biscuits: Parle Happy Happy Chocolate Sandwich (21.5 gm), Sunfeast Special Tasty Pineapple Cream (19.75), Sunfeast Special Tasty Orange Cream (19.5), Cadbury Oreo Strawberry (19.35), Cadbury Oreo Original (19.2).

The most fat in 50 grammes of biscuits: Britannia 50-50 Maska Chaska (13 gm), Parle Monaco Classic Regular (11.65), Parle Krackjack Original (11.35), Sunfeast Butter Cookies (10.55), Parle 20-20 Cashew Butter Cookies (10.5).

A packet of biscuits has for the better part of thirty years been a quick and cheap replacement ‘meal’ for many working people in urban India. This is now just as common a practice, if not more so, in rural India (instant noodles is the other alternative). The nutritional impacts of this habit are bound to be considerable – 30 grammes each per day of sugar and fats is the intake for an adult male as suggested by our Indian Council of Medical Research. Many of these brands will in a single packet deliver a third of that daily allowance.

[The biscuits examined: Boost NRG Chocolate Biscuits, Britannia 50-50 Maska Chaska, Britannia Marie Gold, Britannia Nice Time, Britannia Nutri Choice Hi Fibre, Britannia Tiger Krunch, Cadbury Oreo Original, Cadbury Oreo Strawberry, Horlicks Biscuits, Parle 20-20 Butter Cookies, Parle 20-20 Cashew Butter Cookies, Parle G Glucose, Parle Happy Happy Chocolate Chip, Parle Happy Happy Chocolate Sandwich, Parle Krackjack Original, Parle Magix Cashew, Parle Magix Choco, Parle Marie Wheat Benefit, Parle Monaco Classic Regular, Sunfeast Butter Cookies, Sunfeast Marie Light, Sunfeast Special Choco Cream, Sunfeast Special Tasty Elaichi, Sunfeast Special Tasty Orange Cream, Sunfeast Special Tasty Pineapple Cream, Unibic Anzac Oatmeal Cookies, Unibic Multigrain Breakfast Cookies.]

Written by makanaka

February 12, 2014 at 07:11

How the geography of world obesity has shifted

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(1) Obesity is on the rise globally: One in three adults in the world (1.46 billion) were overweight or obese in 2008, up by 23% since 1980. (2) Where overweight or obese people live is changing: North Africa and the Middle East, and Latin America now have almost the same percentage of overweight or obese people as Europe. Graphics: ODI

(1) Obesity is on the rise globally: One in three adults in the world (1.46 billion) were overweight or obese in 2008, up by 23% since 1980. (2) Where overweight or obese people live is changing: North Africa and the Middle East, and Latin America now have almost the same percentage of overweight or obese people as Europe. Graphics: ODI

For the last few years, food scarcity and the effects of industrial food have co-existed, often within the same demographic circle and within countries. This is no contradiction (although it demands far more attentive food policy) because the in the world’s industrialised agriculture and processed food system, both must exist in order that profits are made, in order that ‘economic growth’ is fulfilled.

Now, the BBC has reported that the number of overweight and obese adults in the ‘developing world’ (an unnecessary hangover that label, which media organisations must outlaw) has almost quadrupled to around one billion since 1980. The BBC report is based on a study by Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, which has said that one in three people worldwide was now overweight – the study uses these findings to urge governments to do more to influence diets.

(1) Obesity is growing in the developing world: In the developing world, the number of overweight or obese adults more than tripled from 250 million in 1980 to 904 million. (2) Where overweight or obese people live is changing: More adults were overweight or obese in developing countries than in rich countries in 2008. Graphics: ODI

(1) Obesity is growing in the developing world: In the developing world, the number of overweight or obese adults more than tripled from 250 million in 1980 to 904 million. (2) Where overweight or obese people live is changing: More adults were overweight or obese in developing countries than in rich countries in 2008. Graphics: ODI

There has indeed been a dramatic increase in the numbers of overweight or obese people in the past 30 years, as anyone who has passed through public places is likely to have observed. Previously considered a problem in richer countries, the biggest rises are in what those familiar with ‘development economics’ (another term that means effectively nothing) call ‘middle income countries’ and the ‘developing world’.
The ODI study, called ‘Future Diets’, has traced how the changes in diet – more fat, more meat, more sugar and bigger portions (what the Americans loving call ‘supersize’) – have led to a health crisis. It also looks at how policy-makers have tried to curb these excesses, usually with little success.

[Use this calculator to check where you are on what the BBC calls ‘the global fat scale’]

The official line on the causes of obesity includes higher incomes. The rationale is that those households which earn more are now able to choose the kind of foods they want, and that they choose poorly. Changes in lifestyle are mentioned, as is the increasing availability of processed foods, the dreadful impact of advertising in and on every space discernible by our senses, and the co-option of media by the food industry (along with most other consumerist industries that require propaganda to ensure quarterly profit and expectations are met and that shareholder value is protected).

(1) Sugar and sweetener consumption is rising: An indicator of changing diets is the increasing consumption of sugar and sweeteners, which has risen by over 20% per person between 1961 and 2009. (2) Change is possible: South Koreans ate 300% more fruit and 10% more vegetables in 2009 compared to 1980 thanks to concerted government-led campaigns. Graphics: ODI

(1) Sugar and sweetener consumption is rising: An indicator of changing diets is the increasing consumption of sugar and sweeteners, which has risen by over 20% per person between 1961 and 2009. (2) Change is possible: South Koreans ate 300% more fruit and 10% more vegetables in 2009 compared to 1980 thanks to concerted government-led campaigns. Graphics: ODI

But this is the very alarming result. In what are also called ’emerging economies’, where a large middle class of people with rising incomes lives in urban centres and takes less physical exercise than their parents and grandparents did, there is “an explosion in overweight and obesity in the past 30 years” which of course will lead to serious implications for public health.

The consumption of fat, salt and sugar has increased globally according to the United Nations, and these increases are significant factors in the increase seen in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. The study has recommended more concerted public health measures from governments, similar to those taken to limit smoking in developed countries, but of course, to really bring about a change in the way new entrants into the urban middle classes eat, there must be the admission that economic ‘growth’ should first stop, then reverse. How likely is that in the next generation?

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).

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

How ‘sticky’ is food inflation? What the FAO food index really says

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Using the just released FAO food index update for 2011 August, I have compared the two periods of high food prices, the earlier one in 2007-08 and the continuing period of 2010-11.

Between 2007 Dec and 2008 Sep: for 8 months the Food Index was above 200, and for 10 months the Cereals Index was above 200.

Between 2010 Sep and 2011 Aug: for 11 months the Food Index has been above 200, and for 12 months the Cereals Index has been above 200.

This is the longest period in the last ten years that the FAO food index has been at such a level. This is the backstory of the FAO Food Price Index.

Let’s turn to what the FAO has said about the 2011 August update.

World food prices remained virtually unchanged between July and August 2011. The Index averaged 231 points last month compared to 232 points in July. It was 26% higher than in August 2010 but seven points below its all-time high of 238 points in February 2011. Within the index, cereals prices rose, reflecting the fact that although cereal production is expected to increase, it will not do so by enough to offset the additional demand, so that stocks continue to be low and prices continue to be high and volatile.

The FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 253 points in August, up 2.2%, or 5 points, from July and 36% higher than in August 2010. However, the firmer cereal prices were largely offset by declines in international prices of most other commodities included in the Food Price Index, oils and dairy products in particular.

Cereal price rises stem from a supply and demand balance that remains tight despite the anticipated increase in production. World cereal production in 2011 is now forecast to reach 2,307 million tonnes, 3% higher than in 2010. But this latest forecast is nearly 6 million tonnes lower than the previous forecast published in July.

Among the major cereals, the maize supply situation is a cause for concern following downward revisions to maize crop prospects in the United States, the world’s largest maize producer, because of continued hot weather in July and August. Average wheat prices were also up 9% in August given the strong demand for feed wheat and shrinking supplies of high quality wheat. Nonetheless, world wheat production is forecast to increase by 4.3% (or 28 million tonnes), only 4 million tonnes below the 2009 record.

World coarse grain production is still heading for a record level of 1,147.5 million tonnes, up 2.4% (or 27 million tonnes) from 2010, in spite of lowered maize production prospects in the United States, the world’s largest maize producer. Rice prices also gained with the benchmark Thai rice price up 5% from July, driven by a policy change in Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, where paddy rice will be purchased from farmers at above market prices. Global rice production prospects remain favourable, however, with output set to reach a new high of 479 million tonnes, up 2.5% from 2010.

Total cereal utilization in 2011-12 is forecast to increase by 1.4%, almost matching anticipated 2011 production. As a result, global cereal inventories by the close of seasons in 2012 are likely to remain close to their already low opening levels. Only rice stocks are expected to increase significantly, supported by record production. Wheat inventories are likely to decline to their lowest level since 2009 and world stocks of coarse grains are also forecast to plunge, with maize inventories falling to 124 million tonnes, their lowest level since 2007. Given the tight global supply and demand balance for coarse grains, its stocks-to-use ratio is forecast to fall to a historical low of 13.4%.

The FAO Oils/Fats Price Index averaged 244 points in August, following a declining trend since March but still remaining high in historical terms. The FAO Dairy Price Index averaged 221 points in August, significantly down from 228 points in July and 232 points in June, but still 14% higher than the same period last year. The FAO Meat Price Index averaged 181 points in August, up 1% from July. The FAO Sugar Price Index averaged 394 points in August, down 2% from July, but still 50% higher than in August 2010.

Written by makanaka

September 9, 2011 at 20:37

Six months of peak for the FAO food index

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Since 2011 January, the FAO food price index components have recorded some of their highest monthly readings. Sugar touched a peak in January (420.2) and February (418.2), oils reached highs in February (279.3) and January (277.7), cereals reached highs in April (265.4) and May (261.3), meat touched a peak in June (180.4) and in April (180.4).

The consolidated food price index has been within 6 points (2.5%) of the February peak (237.7) for all the months of 2011. In June 2011 the index is less than 4 points off the February peak.

FAO’s Food Price Index rose one percent to 234 points in June 2011 – 39 percent higher than in June 2010 and four percent below its all-time high of 238 points in February of this year. The FAO Cereal Price index averaged 259 points in June, down one percent from May but 71 percent higher than in June 2010. Improved weather conditions in Europe and the announced lifting of the Russian Federation’s export ban contributed to the price drop.

However the maize market remained tight because of low 2010 supplies and continued wet conditions in the United States. Prices of rice were mostly up in June, reflecting strong import demand and uncertainty over export prices in Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter. The FAO Sugar Price Index rose 14 percent from May to June, reaching 359 points, 15 percent below its January record. Production in Brazil, the world’s biggest sugar producer, is forecast to fall below last year’s level. The FAO Dairy price Index averaged 232 points in June, virtually unchanged from 231 points in May. The FAO Meat Price Index averaged 180, marginally up from May with poultry meat rising three percent and climbing to a new record, while pig meat prices declined somewhat.

Following two consecutive revisions to the US crops and planting prospects for 2011, FAO’s latest forecast for world cereal production in 2011/2012 stands at nearly 2 313 million tonnes, 3.3 percent higher than last year and 11 million tonnes above FAO’s last forecast on 22 June. World cereal utilization in 2011/2012 is forecast to grow 1.4 percent from 2010/2011, reaching 2 307 million tonnes, just five million tonnes under forecast production. World cereal stocks at the close of the crop season in 2012 are now expected to stand  six million tonnes above their opening levels.  While wheat and rice inventories are expected to become more comfortable, coarse grains stocks, especially maize, would remain tight.

The FAO Food Price Index (FFPI) averaged 234 points in June 2011, 1 percent higher than in May and 39 percent higher than in June 2010. The FFPI hit its all time high of 238 points in February. A strong rise in international sugar prices was behind much of the increase in the June value of the index. International dairy prices rose slightly in June, while meat prices were stable. Of all the major cereals, prices of wheat fell most and rice increased. Among the oils and fats, prices of soybean oil were steady but palm oil weakened.

[Detailed data available from FAO here.]

The FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 259 points in June, down 1 percent from May but 71 percent higher than in June 2010. Improved weather conditions in Europe and the announced lifting of the export ban by the Russian Federation (from July) depressed wheat prices. However, maize markets were supported by tight old crop (2010) supplies and continued wet conditions in the United States. Prices of rice were mostly up in June, reflecting strong import demand and uncertainty over export prices in Thailand, the world largest rice exporter.

The FAO Oils/Fats Price Index averaged 257 points in June, down marginally from May. Continued production uncertainties and expectation of stronger world import demand sustained soybean oil prices. By contrast, palm oil prices eased further, reflecting improved supply prospects and ample export availabilities in Southeast Asia. The FAO Dairy Price Index averaged 232 points in June, virtually unchanged from 231 points in May. This was the result of diverging price movements, with prices of skim milk powder and casein up by 5 percent, whole milk powder down by 3 percent, while prices of butter and cheese remained stable.

The FAO Meat Price Index averaged 180 points, marginally up from May. Poultry meat prices experienced a 3 percent rise, breaking a new record, while pig meat prices declined somewhat. Prices of bovine and ovine meat were subject to modest increases, from already high levels. The FAO Sugar Price Index averaged 359 points in June, up 14 percent from May and only 15 percent below its January record. The price strength reflects  dynamic short-term demand against tight exportable availabilities, notably in Brazil, the world’s largest sugar producer where production is forecast to fall below last year’s level.

FAO’s March 2011 food price index, anomaly or turnaround?

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FAO food price index for 2011 March

Global food prices decline, is the assessment of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for 2011 March. The FAO Food Price Index has shown its first decrease in eight months. “The food price index dropped some this month but only time will tell if this is the start of a reversal of the upward trend,” said FAO.

The Index averaged 230 points in March 2011, down 2.9 percent from its peak in February, but still 37 percent above March of last year. “The decrease in the overall index this month brings some welcome respite from the steady increases seen over the last eight months,” said David Hallam, Director of FAO’s Trade and Market Division. “But it would be premature to conclude that this is a reversal of the upward trend,” he added.

“We need to see the information on new plantings over the next few weeks to get an idea of future production levels. But low stock levels, the implications for oil prices of events in the Middle East and North Africa and the effects of the destruction in Japan all make for continuing uncertainty and price volatility over the coming months,” said Hallam.

FAO food commodity price index for 2011 March

International prices of oils and sugar dropped the most, followed by cereals. By contrast, dairy and meat prices were up, although only marginally in the case of meat. The Cereal Price Index averaged 252 points in March, down 2.6 percent from February, but still 60 percent higher than in March 2010. March was extremely volatile for grains, with international quotations first plunging sharply, driven largely by outside market developments such as the increased economic uncertainties accompanying the turmoil in North Africa and parts of the Near East as well as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, before regaining most of their losses. Rice prices also fell as a result of abundant supply in exporting countries and sluggish import demand.

A positive outlook but food stocks diminish, said the FAO. World production of cereals fell in 2010, resulting in falling stocks, while total cereal utilization is expected to reach a record level in 2010/11. While most indications point to increased cereal production in 2011, the projected growth may not be sufficient to replenish inventories, in which case prices could remain firm throughout 2011/12 as well.

Index details: The FAO Food Price Index (FFPI) averaged 230 points in March  2011, down  2.9 percent from its peak in February, but still 37 percent above March last year. International prices of oils and sugar contracted the most, followed by cereals. By contrast, dairy and meat prices were up.

FAO food price index real/deflated for 2011 March

The FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 252 points, down 2.6 percent from February, but still 60% higher than in March 2010. The past month was extremely volatile for grains, with international quotations first plunging sharply, driven largely by recent events in Japan and North Africa, before regaining most of their losses towards the end of the month, as markets reacted to a continuing tight world supply and demand condition. Rice prices also fell amid large availability in exporting countries and sluggish import demand.

The FAO Oils/Fats Price Index fell 7 percent, to 260, interrupting nine months of consecutive rise. Last month’s slide in prices reflects primarily a recovery in global supply prospects for palm oil. The FAO Sugar Price Index averaged 372 points, down as much as 10 percent from the highs of January and February. The recent decline in international sugar prices was partly prompted by prospects of increased market availability, notably from India.

The FAO Dairy Price Index averaged 234 points, up 1.9 percent from February and 37 percent above its level in March 2010. Firm import demand together with lower than expected production in Southern hemisphere supplying countries, where the milking season is coming to a close, continue to underpin world prices. The FAO Meat Price Index  was little changed at 169 points in March. The upward trend in  meat prices since 2010 has flattened in the past few months, reflecting trade disruptions in several key markets, particularly North Africa and Japan.

Written by makanaka

April 12, 2011 at 19:54