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A Jekyll and Hyde food price index

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or this one:

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

Or even this one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The global transmission of high food prices-World Bank’s February evidence

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Higher global wheat prices have fed into sharp increases in domestic wheat prices in many countries, the February 2011 Food Price Watch of The World Bank has said. The transmission rate of global wheat price increases to the domestic price of wheat-related products has been high in many countries, according to the report. “For instance, between June 2010 and December 2010, the price of wheat increased by large amounts in Kyrgyzstan (54%), Bangladesh (45%), Tajikistan (37%), Mongolia (33%), Sri Lanka (31%), Azerbaijan (24%), Afghanistan (19%), Sudan (16%), and Pakistan (16%). Several of these countries have a large share of calories consumed from wheat-based products, particularly for the poor. Global food prices continue to rise, though not uniformly for all grains.”

The World Bank’s Food Price Watch is produced by the Bank’s Poverty Reduction And Equity Group, Poverty Reduction And Economic Management Network. The World Bank’s food price index rose by 15% between October 2010 and January 2011, is 29% above its level a year earlier, and only 3% below its June 2008 peak. A breakdown of the index shows that the grain price index remains 16% below its peak mainly due to relatively stable rice prices, which are significantly lower than in 2008. The increase over the last quarter is driven largely by increases in the price of sugar (20%), fats and oils (22%), wheat (20%), and maize (12%).

Maize prices have increased sharply and are affected by complex linkages with other markets. In January 2011, maize prices were about 73% higher than June 2010. These increases are due to a series of downward revisions of crop forecasts, low stocks (U.S. stocks-to-use ratio for 2010-11 is projected to be 5%, the lowest since 1995), the positive relationship between maize and wheat prices, and the use of corn for biofuels.

Ethanol production demand for corn increases as oil prices go up, with sugar-based ethanol less competitive at current sugar prices. Recent United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates show the share of ethanol for fuel rising from 31% of U.S. corn output in 2008-9 to a projected 40% in 2010-11. Increased demand for high fructose corn syrup from countries such as Mexico, as they substitute away from higher priced sugar, also contributes to higher demand for corn. Prospects of easing in this market depend partly on the size of the crops in Latin America, particularly Argentina, which has been affected by unusually dry weather due to the La Nina effect, and the extent of import demand from China in 2011 as well as oil and sugar price trajectories.

Domestic rice prices have risen sharply in some countries and remained steady in others. The domestic price of rice was significantly higher in Vietnam (46%) and Burundi (41%) between June–December 2010. Indonesia (19%), Bangladesh (19%), and Pakistan (19%) have increased in line with global prices. These Asian countries are large rice consumers, especially among the poor. Rice prices have increased in Vietnam despite good domestic harvests. This is primarily due to the depreciation of the currency, which has fuelled overall inflation and expectations of higher demand from large importers and led  to the minimum rice export price being raised by the Vietnamese government. Rice price increases in Sri Lanka (12%) and China (9%) have been relatively moderate in the second half of 2010, while in Cambodia and the Philippines the retail price of rice remained largely unchanged during this period.

Largest Movers in Domestic Prices, June to December 2010
Wheat
Kyrgyzstan (retail, Bishkek) 54%
Bangladesh (retail, national average) 45%
Tajikistan (retail, national average) 37%
Mongolia (retail, Ulaanbaatar) 33%
Sri Lanka (retail, Colombo) 31%
Azerbaijan (retail, national average) 24%
Afghanistan (retail, Kabul) 19%
Sudan (wholesale, Khartoum) 16%
Pakistan (retail, Lahore) 16%

Rice
Vietnam (retail, Dong Thap) 46%
Burundi (retail, Bujumbura) 41%
Bangladesh (retail, Dhaka) 19%
Pakistan (retail, Lahore) 19%
Indonesia (retail, national average) 19%
Mozambique (retail, Maputo) 14%

Beans
Burundi (retail, Bujumbura) 48%
Cameroon (retail, Yaounde) 43%
Uganda (wholesale, Kampala) 38%
Kenya (wholesale, Nairobi) 22%

Maize
Brazil (wholesale São Paulo) 56%
Argentina (wholesale, Rosario) 40%
Rwanda (wholesale, Kigali) 19%

The Great Game all over again?

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Ethnic Uzbeks gathered near the Kyrgz-Uzbek border in southern Kyrgyzstan in June, trying to seek refuge in Uzbekistan following violence in the city of Osh. According to official estimates, 370 people died there after the Kyrgz went on a rampage against the Uzbeks, and vice versa. The true figure is likely more than 2,000. Some 75,000 people fled to Uzbekistan. Photo: Der Spiegel

 

The Deutsch news magazine Der Spiegel certainly thinks so. It has begun a special series which will explore Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In these countries, once the center of the ‘Great Game’, a bitter struggle over natural resources and strategic bases between the British and Russian colonial powers, history is being repeated, says Der Spiegel.

“The Pamir, Hindu Kush and Tian Shan mountain ranges and the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers border a region in which two world religions, Islam and Christianity, collided, astronomy blossomed and eminent doctors taught. Central Asia is one of the eternal hot spots in world history, a place where Darius I and Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane left their marks. The British and Russian colonial powers followed suit when they embarked on the “Great Game,” a bitter struggle over natural resources and strategic bases.”

The news magazine says that today the major powers’ interests in the region range from military bases for waging the war against the Taliban to oil and gas pipelines and drug prevention. One of the most important heroin smuggling routes passes through a part of Central Asia controlled by Islamists.

“For these reasons, the world is now witnessing a new version of the Great Game, this time involving both the former players, Russia and Great Britain, and new players, the United States, China and Iran. None of the countries within their field of vision is stable, eccentric dictators are in control almost everywhere, corruption is rampant and many nations are at odds with their neighbours.”

State of Food Insecurity 2010 – FAO says too little, too timidly

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Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) 2010The 2010 edition of the State of Food Insecurity says much too little and what it does say is unconvincing. There is a theme for this years edition of one of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) ‘flagship’ reports. The theme is “countries in protracted crisis” by which FAO means conflict and war, internal and external.

FAO doesn’t say so explicitly in the introduction to SOFI 2010 on its website. There’s no excuses for FAO not to when the World Food Programme, Oxfam, ActionAid and a number of international agencies and aid groups have done so, not just this year but for at least a decade.

As the world’s pre-eminent compiler of food and agriculture-related research, data and analysis, FAO ought to see itself as duty-bound to be clear and fair in its reportage but it is not.

SOFI 2010 says that the majority of the world’s undernourished people live in developing countries. Two-thirds live in just seven countries (Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan) and over 40% live in China and India alone.

The report says that “FAO’s projections for 2010 indicate that the number of undernourished people will decline in all developing regions, although with a different pace. The region with most undernourished people continues to be Asia and the Pacific, but with a 12% decline from 658 million in 2009 to 578 million, this region also accounts for most of the global improvement expected in 2010″. Where does FAO think this improvement is going to come from, given the fact that its own food price index shows how cereals have risen at a clip this year to match the rise in 2007?

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) 2010Just as it did a month ago, the FAO is sounding like it is in two minds about what to report. SOFI 2010 says that “developing countries as a group have seen an overall setback in terms of the World Food Summit goal (from 827 million in 1990–92 to 906 million in 2010), while some progress has been made towards MDG 1 (with the prevalence of hunger declining from 20% undernourished in 1990–92 to 16% in 2010)”.

Which are the 22 countries covered by the ‘protracted crisis’ theme? Here they are, the numbers in total population in millions followed by number of undernourished in millions, both for 2005-07. (Why couldn’t these have been for 2009 in a report dated 2010?): Afghanistan (na / na), Angola (17.1 / 7.1), Burundi (7.6 / 4.7), Central African Republic (4.2 / 1.7), Chad (10.3 / 3.8), Congo (3.5 / 0.5), Côte d’Ivoire (19.7 / 2.8), Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (23.6 / 7.8), Democratic Republic of the Congo (60.8 / 41.9), Eritrea (4.6 / 3.0), Ethiopia (76.6 / 31.6), Guinea (9.4 / 1.6), Haiti (9.6 / 5.5), Iraq (na / na), Kenya (36.8 / 11.2), Liberia (3.5 / 1.2), Sierra Leone (5.3 / 1.8), Somalia (na / na), Sudan (39.6 / 8.8), Tajikistan (6.6 / 2.0), Uganda (29.7 / 6.1), Zimbabwe (12.5 / 3.7).

SOFI 2010 says: “On average, the proportion of people who are undernourished is almost three times as high in countries in protracted crisis as in other developing countries (if countries in protracted crisis and China and India are excluded). Nonetheless, not all countries in protracted crisis present very high levels of undernourishment as in some of these countries crises are localized to certain areas or regions. There are approximately 166 million undernourished people in countries in protracted crisis – roughly 20% of the world’s undernourished people, or more than a third of the global total if China and India are excluded from the calculation.”

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) 2010The question, what happens when China and India are excluded from calculations? With the exclusions 130.4 million (China) and 237.7 million (India) fall out of the equations? Moreover, SOFI isn’t following it’s own data. The para above says 166 million (approx) undernourished in countries in ‘protracted crisis’ but the table annex shows that the 22 countries together have 146.8 million undernourished. If the larger number for the 22 countries is the 2009 estimate, then FAO could have used the same method to provide estimates for all countries for 2009.

When FAO recalculates its food price index monthly (the current index is up-to-date for September 2010) why are these estimates three years old? Why should China and India be excluded when they account for over a third of the global undernourished population? Last month FAO said that 925 million people in the world live in chronic hunger and explained that “the decline (from 1,020 million in 2009) was primarily attributable to better economic prospects in 2010 and the fall in food prices since mid-2008”. What fall in food prices? What better economic prospects?

The State of Food Insecurity 2010 is a disappointing and pedestrian effort. FAO ought to retract this version and revise it thoroughly without dwelling on themes like ‘protracted crisis’ and instead get to grips with the market- and economics-related reasons for food price spikes and the hunger they bring.