The last decade saw the end of cheap oil, the magic growth ingredient for the global economy after the second world war. This summer’s increase in maize, wheat and soya bean prices – the third spike in the past five years – suggests the era of cheap food is also over.
Price increases in both oil and food provide textbook examples of market forces. Rapid expansion in the big emerging markets, especially China, has led to an increase in demand at a time when there have been supply constraints. For crude, these have included the war in Iraq, the embargo imposed on Iran, and the fact that some of the older fields are starting to run dry before new sources of crude are opened up.
The same demand dynamics affect food. It is not just that the world’s population is rising by 1% a year. Nor is it simply that China has been growing at 9% a year on average; it is that consumers in the big developing countries have developed an appetite for higher protein western diets. Meat consumption is rising in China, India and Brazil, and since it takes 7kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef (and 4kg to produce 1kg of pork), this is adding to global demand.
Farmers have been getting more efficient, increasing the yields of land under production, but this has been offset by two negative factors: policies in the US and the EU that divert large amounts of corn for biofuels and poor harvests caused by the weather.
If the World Bank’s projections are anything like accurate, further massive productivity gains from agriculture are going to be needed over the next two decades. There will be an extra 70m mouths to feed every year
America’s worst drought in half a century will push up inflation and put a fresh obstacle in the path of the struggling global economy, one of the UK’s leading banks has warned.
Senior global economist at HSBC, Karen Ward, said sharp rises in the cost of wheat, corn and soya beans came when growth was slowing but said the weakness of wage pressure meant there was no need for central banks to raise interest rates in response to a higher cost of living.
Blistering heat in the US has destroyed 45% of the corn and 35% of the soya bean crop in the worst harvest since 1988. Russia and Ukraine have also had poor crop yields. Ward said higher food prices would result.
“This is another dampener for the global economy at a time when the headwinds are already acute,” Ward said.