New York City, 06 January 2012

A Punch to the Mouth – Food Price Volatility Hits the World

Perfect Storms

2011 was an abysmal year for the global insurance industry, which had to cover yet another enormous increase in damages from natural disasters. Unknown to most casual observers is the fact that during the past few decades the frequency of weather-related disasters (floods, fires, storms) has been growing at a much faster pace than geological disasters (such as earthquakes). This spread between the two types of insurable losses has moved so strongly that it prompted Munich Re to note in a late 2010 letter that weather-related disasters due to wind have doubled and flooding events have tripled in frequency since 1980. The world now has to contend with a much higher degree of risk from weather and climate volatility, and this has broad-reaching implications.

And critically, it has a particular impact on food.

Many factors seen over the past decade have produced higher food prices: population growth, urbanization, the decline of arable land per person, and the upgrading of diets for example. But more damaging than food inflation has been the pushing of global food prices out of their long, quiet envelope of stability. From the recently released UN Report on the World Food Situation.

The FAO Index (Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N) shows that, while prices are once again down from a peak, a troublesome volatility started to affect food prices this decade. These are the very prices that caused social instability in countries like Mexico in 2007-2008 (pressure on corn prices, owing in part to US corn ethanol mandates) and more recently in northern Africa (Arab Spring).

Commodity observers will note the rough correspondence with oil prices, and of course that’s no mistake. Inputs to food production are heavily composed of fossil fuels. In the same way that both high (and highly volatile) oil prices play havoc with economies, food prices and marginal speculation in food have done the same.

2011 also saw the highest average oil prices since 2008, at $94.81 per barrel. That is not far below the average high of 2008, at $99.67. In between was a crash in oil prices — and most commodities — which unfolded at a rate almost as rapid as the original run-ups from 2006-2008. What happens next?

The USDA has just released its Food CPI readings for 2011, along with their forecast for 2012.

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