Is this another crisis like the one we had in 2008?
Not quite. Maximo Torero of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC notes that oil, the real driver of food prices and of the 2008 crisis, is relatively cheap, at around $75 a barrel, not over $100 as it was in 2008.
In 2008, both immediate grain prices, and the prices offered for future grain purchases in commodities markets, climbed steadily for months, whereas now they are spiking and dipping more unpredictably, which economists call volatility.
“The market fundamentals – supply and demand – do not warrant the price increases we have seen,” says Torero. Not all harvests have been bad, and after 2008 countries rebuilt grain stocks. “There are enough stocks in the US alone to cover the expected losses in Russia.”
The food riots in Mozambique were not due to world grain prices, he says, but because Mozambique devalued its currency, making imported food more expensive.
So what has been happening this year?
Markets are responding nervously to incomplete information. First there was a series of shocks: Russia’s export ban, lower maize forecasts, then, days later, a US ruling to allow more bioethanol in fuel which seemed likely to further reduce the maize – the main source of bioethanol – available for food. Meanwhile there was no reliable information about grain stocks, which is strategic information that most countries keep secret.
The result was nervous bidding and sporadically surging prices in commodity markets. And that attracted the real problem: investors wielding gargantuan sums of speculative capital and hoping to make a killing. When speculation exacerbated the price crisis of 2008, Joachim von Braun of the University of Bonn, Germany, then head of IFPRI, predicted that it would continue causing problems. “We saw that one coming and it came,” he says. “Food markets have new design flaws, with their inter-linkages to financial markets.”
Volatility also makes it harder to solve the long-term, underlying problem – inadequate food production – by making farmers and banks reluctant to invest in improved agricultural technology as they are unsure of what returns they will get. “Investment in more production alone will not solve the problem,” says von Braun. As long as extreme speculation causes constant price bubbles and crashes, either farmers will not get good enough returns to continue investing in production, or consumers will not be able to afford the food.
“Without action to curb excessive speculation, we will see further increases in these volatilities,” he says.