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Rising Food Prices May Be Here to Stay

Customers await bread at baker in Cairo, Egypt: rising food prices are squeezing poorer consumers most (photo: Shawn Baldwin/Corbis)

COMMODITY PRICES

Rising Food Prices May Be Here to Stay

By Marina Primorac
IMF Survey online

March 17, 2011

  • Bad weather, richer people, trade curbs, biofuel leading to pricier food
  • Costlier food risks higher core inflation in emerging, developing countries
  • Far-reaching impact, especially on the poor

Steady rises in the price of food since 2000 seem to be a trend, and not just the result of temporary factors, caution IMF economists Thomas Helbling and Shaun Roache in a Finance & Development (F&D) magazine article.

The IMF’s food price index—which tracks the spot prices of the 22 most internationally traded agricultural food items—is now close to the spike previously reached in June 2008.

Many countries are struggling with the implications of these high food prices, which exacerbate poverty, inflation, and—for countries that import food—the balance of payments. The implications are far reaching. Witness the recent social unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, some say in response to high bread prices.

Everyone notices when food prices go up. But the poor are hit especially hard because food makes up a much larger share of their total expenditures. They have little room to buy cheaper food items or to spend less on other purchases.

In addition to food prices, the latest issue of F&D focuses on Latin America’s potential to become a global economic player, how countries can cope with the rising cost of health care, and whether public investment in infrastructure is productive.

Not just bad news

Floods, droughts, and wildfires around the world have reduced harvests and pushed prices up. But it’s not just bad news that’s causing the increase. As people get richer, they eat more high-protein foods like meat, dairy products, edible oils, fruits and vegetables, and seafood, and less staple grains. This increases demand for land and for crops that are used to feed animals, and that pushes up the price of staple grains as well.

Another factor leading to food price increases has been the recent boom in biofuels. High oil prices, combined with government support for the production of biofuels, have boosted demand for agricultural crops from which biofuels are produced, such as corn, sugar, palm kernels, and rapeseed. And their prices have risen as a result.

High oil prices also have a direct impact on the cost of producing food. Fuel, including natural gas, is used to produce fertilizers, and also in all stages of agricultural production, from sowing to harvesting to distribution.

The increased demand for agricultural commodities is not likely to be matched by an increase in production, at least any time soon. Growth in the yield of a hectare of land has stagnated, and it’s hard to find more land to devote to food production.

Fueling inflation

The surge in international food prices has already caused consumer price inflation in many economies in early 2011. Such direct “first-round” effects are part of the normal passthrough of prices, and will fade with time. But if people expect food prices to continue to go up in price, they begin to demand higher wages, and this leads to “second-round” effects: an increase in core inflation.

Helbling and Roache argue that the risk of core inflation rising is slim for advanced economies, but significant for emerging and developing countries. In the latter group, food is more important a budget item and confidence in monetary policy is lower, which means higher wage demands and expectations of further inflation.

While factors like bad weather are–hopefully—temporary, the main causes underlying the structural change in global food markets will not be reversed. Technological advances and increased acreage devoted to food production may help ease pressures on food markets, but that will take time. In the meantime, the world may have to adjust to higher food prices.

■ Other articles in the March 2011 issue of Finance & Development include a profile of Nobel prize winner Robert Solow—a man of many paradoxes; a look at whether we should be worrying about inflation or deflation; and an interview with Michel Camdessus on how veterans of the international monetary system recommend it be changed.