World food prices rising: environmental neglect shrinking harvests

  • 2004-05-20
  • By Lester R. Brown
When this year's grain harvest begins in May, world grain stocks will be down to 59 days of consumption-the lowest level in 30 years. The last time stocks were this low, in 1972-74, wheat and rice prices doubled.

A politics of scarcity emerged with exporting countries, such as the United States, restricting exports and using food for political leverage. Hundreds of thousands of people in food-short countries, including Ethiopia and Bangladesh, died of hunger.
Now, a generation later, a similar scenario is unfolding, but for different reasons. After nearly tripling from 1950 to 1996, growth in the world grain harvest came to a halt. In each of the last four years world grain production has fallen short of consumption, forcing a drawdown of stocks. During this period expanding deserts, falling water tables, crop-withering temperatures and other environmental trends have largely offset the positive contributions of advancing technology and additional investment in agriculture.
Prices of basic food and feed commodities are climbing. Wheat futures for May 2004 that traded as low as $2.90 a bushel within the last year on the Chicago Board of Trade have recently topped $4 a bushel, a climb of 38 percent. A similar calculation shows the price of corn up by 36 percent, rice up by 39 percent and soybeans doubling from just over $5 per bushel to over $10 a bushel. Rises in the price of wheat and rice (the world's two basic food staples) and corn and soybeans (the principal feedstuffs) are contributing to higher food prices worldwide, including in China and the United States, the largest food producers.
All countries are affected by the rising world price of basic food commodities. The American Farm Bureau marketbasket survey, which monitors U.S. retail prices of 16 basic food products in 32 states, shows a 10.5 percent rise in food prices during the first quarter of 2004 over the like period in 2003. Price increases range from a 2 percent rise in the price of milk to a 29-percent rise for eggs. Still higher food prices are likely in the second quarter as soybeans have recently hit 15-year highs and wheat and corn seven-year highs. Prices of livestock products that require large amounts of grain are particularly sensitive to higher grain prices. By contrast, bread prices do not usually rise much because wheat typically accounts for less than one-tenth the cost of a loaf of bread. Even a doubling of wheat prices would not greatly increase bread prices.
Food prices are rising almost everywhere. In Russia, bread shortages pushed the price of bread in February up 38 percent compared with February 2003. This so alarmed the government that it restricted wheat exports by imposing an export tax of 35 euros per ton. In South Africa, corn futures prices have climbed in early 2004. The price of white maize, the principal food staple, rose by more than half between December 2003 and January 2004. Yellow maize, used mostly for livestock feed, climbed by 30 percent during the same period.
Higher prices reflect sagging production in the face of soaring demand as the world continues to add more than 70 million people a year and as incomes rise, enabling more of the world's people to consume grain-based livestock and poultry products. Growth in world grain production is lagging behind the growth in demand largely because environmental trends, such as spreading deserts, falling water tables, and rising temperatures, are shrinking harvests in many countries. Consider, for example, Kazakhstan, the former Soviet republic that was the site of the Virgin Lands Project launched in the 1950s. To expand grain production, the Soviets plowed an area of virgin grasslands that exceeded the wheat area of Australia and Canada combined. It dramatically boosted production, but by 1980 soil erosion was undermining productivity. During the 24 years since then, half the country's grainland area has been abandoned.
China is the first major food producer to face reduced harvests partly because of expanding deserts and aquifer depletion. Some 24,000 Chinese villages have either been abandoned or have had their farm economies seriously impaired by invading deserts. In the arid northern half of the country where most of the wheat is grown, tens of thousands of wells go dry each year. These environmental trends, combined with weak grain prices that lower planting incentives, shrank the harvest from its peak of 123 million tons in 1997 to 86 million tons in 2003.
Perhaps the most pervasive environmental trend that is shrinking grain harvests today is the rising temperature. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its September 2003 monthly world crop estimates, it reduced the projected world grain harvest by 35 million tons from its August estimate. This drop, equal to half the U.S. wheat harvest, was due almost entirely to the intense August heat wave in Europe, where crop-withering temperatures shrank harvests from France in the west through the Ukraine in the east.
In 2002 record heat and drought combined to shrink harvests in both India and the United States. Record and near-record temperatures in key food-producing countries accounted for a large share of the record world grain shortfalls of 91 million tons in 2002 and 105 million tons in 2003.
The question now is whether farmers can expand the grain harvest this year enough to eliminate the huge deficit of last year. Unfortunately there are no efforts underway that are sufficient to reverse the expansion of deserts, the fall in water tables or the rise in temperatures that are shrinking harvests in key countries. In the absence of such an effort, food prices are likely to continue rising. o

Lester R. Brown is president of Earth Policy Institute (