Food prices, one year later – Some lessons

According to the data gathered by the FAO, global food prices are on the decline. They have been so for some time. However, this good news does not seem to make the headlines. Reassuring news does not score with the mainstream media. What a difference with the past year during which all of a sudden they discovered that food might not be taken for granted after all! What have we not heard and read by then. The most absurd theories and pseudo-analyses have been spread around by some who know nothing better than copying and pasting the internet without exercizing the slightest sense of critical thinking. Of course, the fear mongers got plenty of publicity while they really did not contribute to anything productive, as I had described in a previous article (Fear mongering does not build a strong future).

What a difference a year makes! And that is a very good thing. It shows that agriculture and farmers are much more resilient and have much greater potential than some want to make believe. That confirms what I have always claimed and that I relentlessly repeat in my presentations and publications. I have lost the count of how many times I have been told that “Christophe, you are quite the optimist”, in particular about the content of Future Harvests. Frankly, I do not think that I am particularly optimistic. Actually, I can see many reasons why we will face serious crises along the way to meeting the goals of feeding a growing population. That warning is the message behind We Will Reap What We Sow. I see human nature and in particular our leadership, as serious reasons for temporary failures. But if I do not consider myself as an optimist, I definitely have a positive attitude. I truly believe we can manage and overcome future challenges, because I crunched the numbers and I have demonstrated in my literature and my talks that feeding 9 billion people in a sustainable manner is quite possible. It is possible, but it is not a given. There is work ahead. That makes it interesting and exciting.

Next to the potential and the future development that can make us overcome the coming challenges, I am also a firm believer of market forces. Market fluctuations trigger action and reaction. Nothing like high prices and solid profits get food producers increase production. Similarly, nothing like poor financial results have the ability to tamper any desire to increase production. The so-called invisible hand works. Sometimes, it holds a carrot. Sometimes, it holds a stick. It makes things move in the right direction. Over the past year, I have presented during a number of events how market forces would influence prices in different sectors in the years to come. By looking at it from the consumer demand end and by going back in the production and supply chain, I showed how the different actors would react to their own particular situations. So far, my predictions have come true, the reactions of retailers, food service, animal protein producers, crop farmers and input suppliers have been as expected. The drop in global food prices is one of these predictions. Those who attended some of my presentations know what I mean. For the others, here is a link to a video showing an excerpt my talk about the dynamics of future agricultural markets that will illustrate what I am writing about.

The past year contains many lessons. Some of them are about us, and some of them are about how to look at the future. The main lesson is probably that the situation of food and agriculture cannot be looked at in a simplistic manner and can certainly not be described or commented with scary slogans. The population is growing but so is agricultural production. The famine that is supposedly around the corner is far from happening. In a year time, the world population has increased by a few dozen million people, who on average tend to eat more food, and in particular meat. Yet, supply is able to meet demand better this year than last year, as global food prices and grain stocks indicate. Another lesson is that even though severe climatic events affect food supply negatively, there is no reason to panic. The fact that last year a severe drought depleted production numbers in one of the essential producing countries, the USA, the system was able to absorb the shock. There has been no food riot in 2012 like in 2008. The reason needs to be looked at what products were the most affected.  Supply of basic food stables remained in balance with demand. There was no particular shortage of bread or rice in sight. The commodities that were affected were business to business products, destined to the animal feed and the corn ethanol industries. Another lesson is that even though the prices of 2012 did not lead to riots, climatic events are a serious threat and need to be factored in future supply and demand scenarios to build enough of a buffer to reduce the risks of supply disruption. Another area that requires more attention is the regulation of financial markets, and in particular the regulatory aspects. It is clear that derivatives amplify market price fluctuations. By deciding who is allowed to be active on the markets of agricultural commodities and for which quantities, the functioning of markets can be more representative of the physical reality. In particular, the participation of players who have no physical production or supply functions in the food and agriculture need to be taken under strict scrutiny. As it is important to have fair market rules for a proper functioning of markets, it will be also useful to look at the functioning of crop insurance. Last year’s drought in the US cost insurance companies much money, while it appeared that US crop farmers ended up the season with the second highest profit level on record. No one will argue that farmers need to be protected from such unpredictable events.  Insurance should guarantee them a minimum income so that their future would not depend from forces out of their control. That is just fair. Opposite to that, it sounds beyond normal that, thanks to other contributors, farmers could go through such a drought without hardly feeling the slightest pinch in the wallet.

After the past year, am I still an “optimist”? Yes, I do believe that farmers will meet demand in the future. For all the reasons above, I am convinced as ever that the potential is largely there and that the world can absorb tough years. But I would attach a warning to my optimism. It is not because it can be done that it will be done. It is necessary to keep thinking ahead, to come with innovative ideas, products and services to be able to plan and forecast better, to make better and faster decisions. It is also essential to pass knowledge and information better and faster, and to choose the attitude of helping others succeed before one’s particular interest. Our societies have succeeded by acting together. Nobody will be able to do it all alone. Providing help and support will be critical for success, just as much as asking for them will be. It also becomes crucial to be able to look beyond one’s area of business and to connect the dots even – or maybe actually in particular – with events and activities that have, at least apparently, several degrees of separation with agriculture in order to anticipate, adapt and be prosperous. That is the core of what I do, and I can only encourage you to take the same approach.

As markets ease, it will be quite tempting to drop the guard. In my opinion, this would be a serious mistake. The time things seem to be under control is the right time to prepare for the future and to do some foresight. Markets will change again as the bargaining power of the different links of the chain will shift. Be assured that there will be some severe price hikes again. My best guess is within five years from now. Those who will do this exercise will have a strong advantage over those who will procrastinate.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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