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Posts Tagged ‘volatility

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.


Persistent high food prices and a winter’s tale of the FAO index

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This chart, using data from the FAO food price index and considering the period 2006 Jan to 2012 Sep, shows the four sections of price plateaus, with the longest – and most severe – being what we are experiencing now.

In this chart I have divided the period from 2006 January till 2012 September into four sections. These four sections represent different phases of the global food price rise and consequent levels of persistent food price inflation. As with all price series movements, the sections flow into and from one another, but with the five components taken together (I have omitted the sugars index, so these five are food, cereals, oils, dairy and meat) the sharp upward and downward gradients become visible. These differences help find the four different sections of prices over the last six years and nine months.

Index close-up: 2007 May to 2008 Nov

Most conspicuously, what is immediately clear from the main chart is that the current period of high food prices (and high levels of food price inflation coupled with volatility in global, regional and local food markets) began in 2010 June and established a new set of plateaus by 2010 August. It is now therefore two years of such a plateau, and the worrying indications are that, as happened in 2009 August and September, we may be on the cusp of an even higher upward movement of prices.

Index close-up: 2010 Jun to 2012 Sep

The thin lines representing averages for the five separate index components (four plus the main food index) are visible for each of the four sections. These provide more evidence of the higher overall index and graphically show the very worrisome duration of the current elevated plateau of prices – the averages for the 2010 June to 2012 September period are higher than the averages for the 2007 May to 2008 November period. Thus the optimistic pronouncements by FAO on the monthly variation in its index – such as this month’s “the FAO Cereal Price Index is 7 percent higher than in the corresponding period last year but still 4 percent below the peak of 274 points registered in April 2008” – fail to present the context, that it is not how far below the 2008 peak but how much the current average is higher than the 2007-08 average that matters.

Indeed, using the FAO food price index data released early in 2012 October (covering the period till 2012 September) this may be the FAO confirmation of the signal that the widespread droughts of 2012 have begun to affect food prices even at this already elevated level. It is all the more worrying since, in the period since 2006 January and which includes the 2007 May to 2008 November period, this is the longest period of sustained high food prices recorded by the FAO food price index. These are the long-term signals that are not conveyed by FAO’s standard monthly chart, which you can see here.

Written by makanaka

October 8, 2012 at 20:07

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

Four points higher, the FAO Food Price Index for 2012 January

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In the first major indication of the way food prices will move in 2012, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has announced that its Food Price Index rose by nearly 2% or four points from December 2011 to January 2012. This is the Index’s its first increase since July 2011. A close look at the FAO Food Price Index shows that prices of all the commodity groups in the index have risen (oils increasing the most). At its new level of 214 points, the index is about 7% lower than what it was in January 2011 (when it reached 231).

In 2010 July, the Food Price Index has begun a steep upward climb it maintained for 7 months until 2011 February, from 172 to 237. Now, this 4 point jump in a month is the sharpest since the rise from 231 in 2011 January to 2011 February. “There is no single narrative behind the food price rebound – different factors are at play in each of the commodity groups,” said FAO’s Senior Grains Economist Abdolreza Abbassian. “But the increase, despite an expected record harvest and an improved stocks situation, and after six months of falling or stable prices, highlights the unpredictability prevailing in global food markets,” he added. “I can’t see that the usual suspects – the value of the dollar and oil prices – were  much involved in January. But one reason is poor weather currently affecting key growing regions like South America and Europe. It has played a role and remains a cause for concern,” he concluded.

What FAO is seeing and saying is routinely misunderstood or deliberately miscast by the mainstream business and financial press. An example of this can be seen in a recent opinion found on Forbes, the business magazine, which links “a slowing UN FAO food price index” and “falling commodity prices” to the global economic slowdown. This, the magazine has said, is “putting further downward pressure on food inflation”. Of course this is completely untrue, as wage labour, informal sector workers and middle class residents in many cities and towns of the South know.

Thus the ‘market’ view is that global demand for agricultural products appears to be slowing. This view exists because this sort of media represents the interests of its owners – the 1% targeted by the Occupy movement. Ever since 2011 July, when the FAO Food Price Index ceased its steady upward march, organs and media representing the interests of the global money markets and the interests of the speculators have attempted to leaven their crooked discussion of the matter by saying that the global dynamic in food and commodity markets took a structural turn. Their insistence on linking “quantitative easing in the USA” and what they call “emerging market demand” (meaning mainly China and India) for food staples has been a consistent feature of this disinformation.

What we are seeing is that the FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 223 points in January, up 2.3% (5 points) from December. International prices of all major cereals with the exception of rice rose, with maize gaining most, 6%. Wheat prices also gained, though less significantly. Prices mostly reflected worries about weather conditions affecting 2012 crops in several major producing regions. Fears of decline in export supplies in the Commonwealth of Independent States also played a part.

[The FAO Food Price Index data sheet is available here (xls).] [The FAO Deflated Prices data sheet is available here (xls).]

According to FAO’s latest forecast world cereal production in 2011 is expected to be more than sufficient to cover anticipated utilization in 2011-12. Production is expected to reach 2,327 million tonnes – up 4.6 million tonnes from the last estimate in December. That would be 3.6% more than in 2010 and a new record. FAO lowered slightly from December 2011 its cereal utilization forecast for 2011-12, to nearly 2,309 million tonnes, still 1.8% higher than in 2010-11. That would put cereal ending stocks by the close of seasons in 2012 at 516 million tones, 5 million tonnes above FAO’s last forecast.

A sober note has been sounded in the Jakarta Globe. The Indonesian newspaper reported the Asian Development Bank warning that Indonesia and other nations in Southeast Asia should be prepared for a possible rise in food prices, which might stoke inflation. Changyong Rhee, chief economist at ADB, is reported by the newspaper as having said the global financial turmoil, marked by the euro zone debt crisis and a possible slowdown in the US economy, might increase the volatility of prices for food and other commodities. According to the ADB, research funding [in agriculture] is being depleted amid climate change, making it difficult for food production to keep up with growing demand. “Food price increases have become more persistent than in the past,” he said in Jakarta. “It has a major impact on food security for millions [of people].” The Jakarta Globe reported that the FAO Food Price Index has risen by 50% in the last four years, compared with a 16% increase from 1991 to 2006.

FAO’s World Food Day sermon, well balanced with a few blind spots

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This is worth a close read for it reflects, in my view, the pull and tug of various opinions and convictions inside the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the single entity that we rely on the most to inform us about the state of cultivators, what they’re growing in our world, and who isn’t getting enough of those crops as food.

I have extracted some important paragraphs of this publication [get it here as a pdf], and commented on them. Here goes:

“At the level of individuals, people living on less than US$1.25 a day may need to skip a meal when food prices rise. Farmers are hurt too because they badly need to know the price their crops are going to fetch at harvest time, months away. If high prices are likely they plant more. If low prices are forecast they plant less and cut costs.”

Yes and no. The one-dollar-a-day global poverty line really ought to be done away with. It means nothing at national level and less within countries. Trying to equate real prices and actual consumption (in grams or hundred grams a day) with purchasing power parity-adjusted international dollars is generally a pointless exercise that generates lists and rankings that distract rather than inform. Anyway, the important part of what FAO said here is that when they’re under a certain daily income line, people can’t buy food to eat what they need to. The comment on farmers making decisions based on expected prices is a good one, something that most people miss, assuming that farmers are as interested in food security as academics are – which is quite untrue. For a farming household, sowing a field is a cost, and that cost needs to be more than recouped in order to make the decision to sow a good one.

“Rapid price swings make that calculation much more difficult. Farmers can easily end up producing too much or too little. In stable markets they can make a living. Volatile ones can ruin them while also generally discouraging much-needed investment in agriculture. Recognizing the major threat that food price swings pose to the world’s poorest countries and people, the international community, led by the G20, moved in 2011 to find ways of managing volatility on international food commodity markets. Under the presidency of France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, the world’s 20 largest economies agreed that any strategy directed to that purpose should have the protection of vulnerable countries and groups as its main priority.”

Now here’s the FAO getting to grips with today’s problem. Rapid price swings is what we tend to call volatility – this can be volatility in retail food prices, or in input prices for farmers, or in offtake (purchase at the farm gate or local market) prices of harvested crops. I don’t see any stable markets the FAO is referring to here. Under Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) the stability is constructed by coordinating a monstrous array of incentives and subventions – causing instability elsewhere in the world and particularly when that ‘elsewhere’ is importing (under duress) European agri products and processed food. But that’s another though related story.

The idea of “much-needed investment in agriculture” is an ill-defined one. The best investment a farmer can make, so goes an old Indian proverb, is that she walks the soil of her field every day with her bare feet – and that means for the farmer to till her land and come face to face with her natural resources and biodiversity. It is not the sort of investment the ‘market’ can understand. But FAO ought to, especially since it also has a Save And Grow programme aimed at addressing the organic, low input, community side of cultivation. This is an example of the contradictions in this FAO document. The “international community” is a tired and non-existent label, describing nothing while pretending to be collegial. Mediocre editorial writers still use it but no realists do. The G20 statement this time around may be a little less wishy-washy than it was last year, but that is scant comfort to the hungry or to the cultivators of small plots.

“Today’s turbulent commodities markets contrast sharply with the situation that characterized the last 25 years of the twentieth century. Between 1975 and 2000 cereal prices remained substantially stable on a month-to-month basis, although trending downwards over the longer term. For despite rapid population growth – world population doubled between 1960 and 2000 – the Green Revolution launched by Dr Norman Borlaug in the 1960s helped food supply to meet and even exceed demand in many countries, including India, thanks to the work of M. S. Swaminathan, then Director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.”

Oh dear. This is one step forward and three back for the FAO. It should not – not – go looking at Green Revolution history in an attempt to encourage beleaguered small farmers and consumers battered by food price inflation. Yes, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and CIMMYT (the CGIAR International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) will establish the Borlaug Institute for South Asia in India. This institute will be at the forefront of the so-called Second Green Revolution in eastern India (and thereafter sub-Saharan and East Africa). The kind of infrastructure demanded by the first Green Revolution by way of irrigation canals, dams with extensive command areas, provision of rural electricity to run pumpsets with, heavily subsidised inorganic fertilisers produced by a monolithic industry closely allied to the petro-chemicals industry and fossil fuel suppliers – all these were overlooked in the rush to raise yield per hectare. We do not want to see that being attempted again with public monies. It is this investment – rather this big fat public money pipe – which kept cereal prices “substantially stable on a month-to-month basis” in what used to be called the First World. It is not possible there now, it is not possible here (Asia and Africa) now. And that’s what FAO should have said, clearly and bluntly.

“In fact there was, in the Western Hemisphere at least, an over-abundance of food, caused in no small part by the generous subsidies which OECD countries paid to their farmers. But the picture today is a very different one. The global market is tight, with supply struggling to keep pace with demand and stocks are at or near historical lows. It is a delicate balance that can easily be upset by shocks such as droughts or floods in key producing regions.”

So it does try to say this, in a push-me-pull-you sort of way, but the truth is there is no delicate balance. Markets do not tolerate delicate balances because investors have no time for such niceties.

“In order to decide how, and how far, we can manage volatile food prices we need to be clear about why, in the space of a few years, a world food market offering stability and low prices became a turbulent marketplace battered by sudden price spikes and troughs.”

Hear, hear.

“The seeds of today’s volatility were sown last century when decision-makers failed to grasp that the production boom then enjoyed by many countries might not last forever and that continuing investment was needed in research, technology, equipment and infrastructure. In the 30 years from 1980 to date the share of official development assistance which OECD countries earmarked for agriculture dropped 43 percent. Continued under-funding of agriculture by rich and poor countries alike is probably the main single cause of the problems we face today.”

Why does the FAO continue stubbornly to see “investment” as an output of only, and exclusively, national agricultural research systems that are in the vast majority of countries government departments with little real connection to growers and household consumers, or are adjuncts of industrial agriculture multinationals? The seeds of volatility (FAO’s pun, not mine) were planted when commodity exchanges invented commodity futures in collusion with banks and investment consulting companies – production booms were not, in the ecological economics framework of measuring things, booms of any kind, nor were they seen in many countries other than the subvention-drunk OECD of the 1970s and 1980s. In this para, FAO has blundered clumsily by now apportioining some blame to “continued under-funding” while having already mentioned the “generous subsidies” years in the West.

“Contributing to today’s tight markets is rapid economic growth in emerging economies, which means more people are eating more meat and dairy produce with the need for feedgrains increasing rapidly as a result. Global trade in soymeal, the world’s leading protein feed for animals, has grown 67 percent over the past 10 years.”

Hear, hear. Type 2 diabetes and the burden of non-communicable diseases (see the WHO’s recent campaign) have also increased dramatically as a result of the wanton carpet-bombing of “emerging economies” (another revolting label) by the food-agbiotech-retail MNCs.

“Population growth, with almost 80 million new mouths to feed every year, is another important element. Population pressure is compounded by the erratic and often extreme meteorological phenomena produced by global warming and climate change. A further contributing factor may be the recent entry of institutional investors with very large sums of money into food commodity futures markets. There is evidence to suggest that food prices may have surged partly as a result of speculation. But there is considerable debate over the issue.”

Yes and no. FAO is right about the impact of population growth, about climate change (it has an enormous amount of documentation on the subject), about institutional investors and how they distort prices and about food speculation and its effects on street prices. There is plenty of evidence. There is not “considerable debate”, unless the FAO thinks that the angry bleatings of bankers to the contrary is some sort of debate. If so, it should consult its fellow UN agency, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which this year released a study titled ‘Price Formation in Financialized Commodity Markets: The Role of Information’. The UNCTAD experts who wrote this paper concluded that the commodities market isn’t functioning properly, or at least not the way a market is supposed to function in economic models, where prices are shaped by supply and demand. But the activities of financial participants, according to the study, “drive commodity prices away from levels justified by market fundamentals”. This leads to massively distorted prices, which are not influenced by real factors but by the expectation that economic developments will improve or worsen.

“Lastly, distortive agricultural and protectionist trade policies bear a significant part of the blame. In addition, with agriculture now substantially part of the wider energy market, any shock to the latter – such as unrest in a producing country – can have immediate repercussions on food prices. Responding to food price volatility therefore involves two different kinds of measures. The first group addresses volatility itself, aiming to reduce price swings through specific interventions while the other seeks to mitigate the negative effects of price swings on countries and individuals. One measure frequently invoked under the first heading is the setting up of an internationally held food stock able to intervene on markets to stabilize prices. But FAO’s view is that such a stock would be of dubious value, as well as expensive and difficult to operate. Also, government intervention in food markets discourages the private sector and hinders competition.”

Again the FAO push-me-pull-you is at work here, but the premier food agency has made some important points. The connection between agriculture and energy is one – and that means biofuels, which has a para to itself in the FAO document. Conflict is also brought in as a factor affecting prices – in how many food-producing and exporting countries is there now war or armed conflict? The idea of ‘strategic food reserves’ – which countries in South-east Asia and in the Persian Gulf region are pursuing – has been given short shrift, rightly in my view. But once again the FAO makes a tired attempt to placate the pro-WTO groups by bemoaning protectionist trade policies – which in WTO-speak means no barriers to entry for OECD food products anywhere so that all that accumulated legacy subsidy can pay back a little. Not acceptable, FAO folks. And to round off the contradictory para, the FAO statement again criticises “government intervention” as hindering competition. Governments have to serve their citizens according to constitutions and charters – these are internal matters and this is where sovereignty and self-determination come before market. Better believe it FAO. At least, for now.

World food insecurity report 2011 – expect more of the same

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The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) have released ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2011’ (SOFI).

This year’s report focuses on high and volatile food prices, identified as major contributing factors in food insecurity at global level and a source of grave concern to the international community. “Demand from consumers in rapidly growing economies will increase, the population continues to grow, and further growth in biofuels will place additional demands on the food system,” the report said.

Moreover, food price volatility may increase over the next decade due to stronger linkages between agricultural and energy markets and more frequent extreme weather events.

Price volatility makes both smallholder farmers and poor consumers increasingly vulnerable to poverty while short-term price changes can have long-term impacts on development, the report found. Changes in income due to price swings that lead to decreased food consumption can reduce children’s intake of key nutrients during the first 1000 days of life from conception, leading to a permanent reduction of their future earning capacity and an increased likelihood of future poverty, with negative impacts on entire economies.

Key Messages

Small import-dependent countries, especially in Africa, were deeply affected by the food and economic crises. Some large countries were able to insulate themselves from the crisis through restrictive trade policies and functioning safety nets, but trade restrictions increased prices and volatility on international markets.

High and volatile food prices are likely to continue. Demand from consumers in rapidly growing economies will increase, population will continue to grow, and further growth in biofuels will place additional demands on the food system. On the supply side, there are challenges due to increasingly scarce natural resources in some regions, as well as declining rates of yield growth for some commodities. Food price volatility may increase due to stronger linkages between agricultural and energy markets, as well as an increased frequency of weather shocks.

Price volatility makes both smallholder farmers and poor consumers increasingly vulnerable to poverty. Because food represents a large share of farmer income and the budget of poor consumers, large price changes have large effects on real incomes. Thus, even short episodes of high prices for consumers or low prices for farmers can cause productive assets – land and livestock, for example – to be sold at low prices, leading to potential poverty traps. In addition, smallholder farmers are less likely to invest in measures to raise productivity when price changes are unpredictable.

Large short-term price changes can have long-term impacts on development. Changes in income due to price swings can reduce children’s consumption of key nutrients during the first 1,000 days of life from conception, leading to a permanent reduction of their future earning capacity, increasing the likelihood of future poverty and thus slowing the economic development process.

High food prices worsen food insecurity in the short term. The benefits go primarily to farmers with access to sufficient land and other resources, while the poorest of the poor buy more food than they produce. In addition to harming the urban poor, high food prices also hurt many of the rural poor, who are typically net food buyers. The diversity of impacts within countries also points to a need for improved data and policy analysis.

High food prices present incentives for increased long-term investment in the agriculture sector, which can contribute to improved food security in the longer term. Domestic food prices increased substantially in most countries during the 2006–08 world food crisis at both retail and farmgate levels. Despite higher fertilizer prices, this led to a strong supply response in many countries. It is essential to build upon this short-term supply response with increased investment in agriculture, including initiatives that target smallholder farmers and help them to access markets, such as Purchase for Progress (P4P).

Safety nets are crucial for alleviating food insecurity in the short term, as well as for providing a foundation for long-term development. In order to be effective at reducing the negative consequences of price volatility, targeted safety-net mechanisms must be designed in advance and in consultation with the most vulnerable people.

A food-security strategy that relies on a combination of increased productivity in agriculture, greater policy predictability and general openness to trade will be more effective than other strategies. Restrictive trade policies can protect domestic prices from world market volatility, but these policies can also result in increased domestic price volatility as a result of domestic supply shocks, especially if government policies are unpredictable and erratic. Government policies that are more predictable and that promote participation by the private sector in trade will generally decrease price volatility.

Investment in agriculture remains critical to sustainable long-term food security. For example, cost-effective irrigation and improved practices and seeds developed through agricultural research can reduce the production risks facing farmers, especially smallholders, and reduce price volatility. Private investment will form the bulk of the needed investment, but public investment has a catalytic role to play in supplying public goods that the private sector will not provide. These investments should consider the rights of existing users of land and related natural resources.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unctad’s Global Commodities Forum is here

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The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), will hold the second Global Commodities Forum in Geneva on 2011 January 31-February 01.

The rationale for the first Unctad Global Commodities Forum 2010 was described last year as centred on developing countries and their dependence on on commodities for their economic well-being. “As demand for commodities in the long term is going to increase, thus posing major challenges for their sustainable and efficient production, there is a very real need to consider how to make the commodities markets more stable and policies better designed, so that the benefits would be more equitably distributed between commodity producers and consumers.” Unctad’s GCF 2010 said then that it was important that an appropriate economic return could be delivered to commodities producers, many of whom are in developing countries.

Policy actions to consider were said to include, inter alia, the development of policies to ensure that countries producing commodities do not face the so-called ‘resource curse’ and, of equal importance, measures that could be taken to mitigate or reduce the adverse effects of price and commodities market volatility, “which cause so much uncertainty and hardship to many of the most vulnerable people in developing countries”.

Moreover, said the Unctad GCF 2010 rationale statement, “there is a clear need to ensure that commodities markets are more effective in serving the interests of the real economy, and that financial market speculators do not, through excessive influx or unwinding of liquidity in commodity futures markets, disturb the performance of commodity producers, consumers and intermediaries”. (We will have to pay close attention to the proceedings of GCF 2011, and not only the statements or resolutions, to judge how far they have progressed from last year’s positions.)

Unctad said then that markets should serve the interests of these stakeholders whose livelihoods are involved in commodities production, shipment, consumption, rather than being subject to manipulation directed at the single-minded purpose of providing a short-term financial return. “Solutions must be found to ensure that the prevailing terms of trade between countries are balanced and that regulatory interventions are optimized, with a view to protect the most vulnerable stakeholders without providing an impediment to trade.”

Now, Unctad has described GCF2011 as focusing on the instability of mineral and agricultural markets and their interconnectedness, the effectiveness of commodity policies and the sustainability of the production and use of commodities, long-term energy and food security, and the role of innovation and early warning systems. “The second meeting of the GCF, organized by UNCTAD with the support of its partners, including the Governments of China, France and Switzerland, as well as Global Fund for Commodities, is a major multi-stakeholder meeting to discuss and find better solutions to perennial problems of the commodity economy,” stated Unctad. “The GCF will also address such key issues as the performance of commodity supply chains and the state of business practices and innovation.”

From the GCF 2011 programme material – themes of the second meeting of this Forum will include the following plenary and parallel sessions:

Plenary A: The State of energy markets: lower volatility and a new price zone for hydrocarbons (A1), The state of agricultural markets: the drivers of increased volatility (A2) The state of selected metals market: fundamentals, non-fundamental factors and terms of trade (A3) Commodity markets’ volatility and interconnectedness (A4), Overcoming market volatility through better regulation, data and transparency (A5); Commodity policy challenges for oil and gas-exporting countries (A6) Commodity policy challenges for minerals and metal exporting countries (A7) Trade and other policy options for modernizing agriculture in developing countries (A8).

Parallels B: Long-term sustainable supply & demand and technological innovation: hydrocarbons and other energy (B1), Long-term sustainable supply & demand in the energy sector: developing early warning systems (B2), New technologies and commodities: agriculture (B3) Long-term sustainable supply and demand and technological innovation and early warning systems for food security (B4), New technologies and commodities: energy (B5); Forecasting trends and strengthening early warning systems for producers, innovators and other supply chain participants (B6).

Parallels C: Current trends and next frontiers for commodity finance (C1), The emerging regulatory environment and trade finance: new challenges and opportunities for banks and other financiers (C2), Support institutions for commodity finance (C3), Shipping and international trade in commodities (C4) Commodity futures markets: do they obscure underlying market realities, or provide long-term signals and management tools? (C5) Risk management in commodity markets: paper and physical markets and the realities of commodity exporters (C6).