With droughts and poor harvests in both North America and in Russia and the Ukraine, there are worries that food prices are likely to see sharp rises in the coming months. This is clearly bad news for consumers, especially the poor for whom food accounts for a large proportion of expenditure.
But it’s also bad news more generally, as higher food prices are likely to have a dampening effect on the global economy, struggling to recover from five years of low or negative growth. And it’s not just food prices. Oil prices are rising again. Since mid June, they have risen by nearly 25%. This too is likely to have a dampening effect.
Another contributing factor to rising food prices is a response, in part, to rising oil prices. This is the diversion of land from growing food to growing crops for biofuels.
G20 countries held a conference call on 28 August to discuss food prices. Although representatives decided against an emergency meeting, they agreed to reassess the situation in a few weeks when the size of the US harvest would be clearer. If the situation proved as bad as feared, then the G20 would call an emergency meeting of the Rapid Response Forum, to consider what could be done.
But is the sole cause of rising food prices a lack of production? Are there other problems on the supply side, such as poor distribution systems and waste? And what about the role of demand? How is this contributing to long-term increases in food prices? The articles consider these various factors and what can be done to dampen food prices.
G20 points to ‘worrying’ food prices Financial Times, Javier Blas (28/8/12)
US food prices to surge on drought Gulf News(30/8/12)
Best to get used to high food and energy prices – they’re here to stay The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (29/8/12)
Feeling a drought The Economist (14/8/12)
Q&A: World food and fuel prices BBC News (14/8/12)
G20 considers global meeting as food prices rise BBC News (28/8/12)
Biofuels and Food Prices (direct link) BBC ‘In the Balance’ programme (25/8/12)
U.N. body urges G20 action on food prices, waste Reuters, Patrick Lannin (27/8/12)
Ethanol industry hits back over food price claims EurActiv (28/8/12)
The era of cheap food may be over Guardian, Larry Elliott (2/9/12)
Food Price Index Index Mundi
- Why have food prices been rising in recent weeks?
- Use a demand and supply diagram to demonstrate what has been happening to food prices.
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for wheat? What might this elasticity vary over time?
- What is the role of speculation in determining food prices?
- Illustrate on an aggregate demand and supply diagram the effect of a commodity price shock. What is likely to be the policy response from central banks?
- What determines the price elasticity of supply of food in (a) the short term and (b) the long term?
- What determines the cross price elasticity of supply of food to the price of oil? Is the cross price elasticity of supply positive or negative?
- What can governments do to reduce food prices, or at least reduce food price inflation?
- What benefits may come from higher food and fuel prices over the longer term?
While inflation is a concern in the UK and is making the Bank of England think twice about keeping interest rates at their all time low of 0.5%, inflation in Japan is being celebrated. The Japanese economy has been plagued by deflation for over a decade and for the past 2 years inflation has never been above 0%. However, in April the consumer price index (CPI) rose to 0.6% from the previous year, fuelled by petrol prices. Strangely it might be the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that helped this situation, as Japan was unable to generate sufficient electricity and hence had to import fuel from abroad.
A typical question from non-economists is always about why deflation and hence falling prices is such a bad thing. Surely, it’s great for consumers? For those shopping for bargains, perhaps it is helpful – after all, if prices fall, a consumer’s real income will be higher. However, the problem with falling prices is that people start to hold off buying. If you want to buy a car, but expect prices to be lower next month, then it’s a rational decision to delay your purchase until next month when prices are lower. However, next month, you still expect prices to be lower in the following month and so delay purchasing again. And so the process continues. When people expect prices to fall they put off their purchases, this reduces demand and so prices do indeed fall. There are also costs for businesses: as consumers delay buying, sales begin to fall. And businesses are also consumers, and so they start delaying their purchases of inputs.
While many central banks across the world have begun to tighten monetary policy, the Japanese central bank seems inclined to keep monetary policy loose and has even considered expanding the emergency lending programme. As Azusa Kato, an economist at BNP Paribas, said:
“The bank will probably add stimulus if it sees more signs of weakening demand”. “If you strip out energy and food costs, consumer prices are basically flat now.”
Despite this inflationary pressure, many believe that it is unlikely to continue and deflationary pressures may appear once again in the near future. The following articles consider the Japanese deflationary situation.
Japan ends 25 months of deflation Bloomberg, Mayumi Otsuma (27/5/11)
Japan consumer prices log first rise in 28 months Associated Press (27/5/11)
Japan beats deflation for the first time in two years BBC News (275/11)
Japan overcomes deflation for first time in two years Guardian, Julia Kollewe (27/5/11)
Japanese consumer price rise (including video) BBC News (27/5/11)
Japan April core CPI rises 0.6 pct yr/yr Reuters (26/5/11)
Japan experiences inflation for first time in over two years Telegraph (27/5/11)
Japan Inflation Rate Trading Economics
Consumer Price Index (Japan) Japanese Statistics Bureau
Inflation Rate and Consumer Price Index (CPI) (for USA, Canada, Australia, UK and Japan) Rate Inflation
Statistical Annex, Preliminary Version OECD
- What are the main costs of deflation? Think about the wider effects on consumers, businesses and the government.
- What has caused the increase in inflation to 0.6% in Japan and why was there an expectation that inflation would re-appear?
- What explanation can be given for the belief that deflation will soon re-emerge?
- Using a demand and supply diagram, explain the process by which consumers delaying their consumption will lead to prices falling continuously.
- What is the best policy for the Japanese central bank to pursue in light of the new data?
The world’s population is set to go on rising – at least to 2050. And as population rises, so will the demand for food. But here we come up against a potentially catastrophic illustration of the law of diminishing returns. Population is set to grow, but the world supply of land is pretty well fixed. And with global warming, some land may become unusable.
According to Sir John Beddington, an expert in population biology and lead author of a government-commissioned report, The Future of Food and Farming, there could be serious consequences of this population rise, including rapid rises in the demand for food, rising food prices, rising land prices, the degradation of land, growing food poverty in many developing countries, growing political unrest and serious environmental damage. As the report’s Executive Summary states:
The global food system will experience an unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years. On the demand side, global population size will increase from nearly seven billion today to eight billion by 2030, and probably to over nine billion by 2050; many people are likely to be wealthier, creating demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce. On the production side, competition for land, water and energy will intensify, while the effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will become imperative. Over this period globalisation will continue, exposing the food system to novel economic and political pressures.
Any one of these pressures (‘drivers of change’) would present substantial challenges to food security; together they constitute a major threat that requires a strategic reappraisal of how the world is fed.
The report specifically looks at five key challenges for the future:
A. Balancing future demand and supply sustainably – to ensure that food supplies are affordable.
B. Ensuring that there is adequate stability in food prices – and protecting the most vulnerable from the volatility that does occur.
C. Achieving global access to food and ending hunger – this recognises that producing enough food in the world so that everyone can potentially be fed is not the same thing as ensuring food security for all.
D. Managing the contribution of the food system to the mitigation of climate change.
E. Maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services while feeding the world.
So what can be done and how realistic are the policy solutions? The following broadcasts and articles examine the arguments
Webcasts and podcasts
Scientists warn of huge pressures on food production BBC News, Pallab Ghosh (24/1/11)
Global food stocks face crisis, says chief scientist BBC News, interview with Professor Sir John Beddington (24/1/11)
‘No easy solution’ to global hunger BBC Today Programme, interview with Professor Sir John Beddington (24/1/11)
Britons must swallow fear of GM crops to feed world Observer, Robin McKie (23/1/11)
Genetically modified crops are the key to human survival, says UK’s chief scientist The Telegraph, Louise Gray (24/1/11)
Report: Urgent action needed to avert global hunger BBC News, Pallab Ghosh (24/1/11)
Foresight. The Future of Food and Farming (2011), Final Project Report The Government Office for Science, London (24/1/11) (link to sections of the report and to the evidence base)
- Summarise the main findings of the report.
- Does increasing the output of food per agricultural worker contradict the law of diminishing returns? Explain.
- What are the current failings of the system of global food supply?
- Why are problems of food supply likely to intensify?
- What externalities are involved in global food production? What impact do these have?
- In what ways might the externalities be internalised?
- What are the benefits and dangers of new technologies as means of increasing food supply?
- To what extent do the goals of increasing food supply and environmental sustainability conflict with each other?
- Explain the main drivers of change that affect food supply and demand? In what ways do these drivers interact with each other?
- “Although the challenges are enormous there are real grounds for optimism.” Explain the report’s authors’ thinking here.
In two recent blogs we have analysed the headache facing the Monetary Policy Committee, given the persistence of inflationary pressures in the UK economy, in deciding whether to raise interest rates. In Food for thought, Elizabeth Jones describes how, despite the weakness of aggregate demand, cost pressures have fuelled inflation while John Sloman in Time for a rise in Bank Rate looks at the difficult judgement call for the MPC in risking a marked dampening of aggregate demand by raising rates while, on the other hand, failing to dampen inflationary expectations by not raising rates. In this blog Dean Garratt analyses some of the latest inflation figures as detailed in the latest Consumer Price Indices Statistical Bulletin. In particular, he focuses on the inflation rates within the overall consumer price inflation rate.
You might be wondering what we mean when we refer to inflation rates within the overall inflation rate. In answering this we need to consider how the Office for National Statistics goes about estimating the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the CPI inflation rate (further details are available in Consumer Price Indices – A Brief Guide produced by the ONS). In order to compile the Consumer Price Index (CPI), each month an organisation collects on behalf of the ONS something in the region of 110,000 prices quotations for around 560 items. But, the key point is that these goods and services fall into one of 12 broad product groups which are referred to as level 1 product groups. These include, for example, food and non-alcoholic beverages and transport.
The items included in each of the 12 product groups are reviewed once a year so that the chosen items remain representative of today’s spending patterns. Once the price information for our representative goods and services has been collected, the prices are compared with their levels in the previous January and the change recorded. These changes are then aggregated in both each product group and across all groups. The price changes are aggregated by weighting them according to the typical share of household spending that each good or service represents. This process is repeated each month in the year so as to always calculate the aggregate change in prices since January. The final step is to link the price changes with those from earlier years to form one long price index, both for each product group and for the overall shopping basket, so that at one arbitrary moment in time the index takes a value of 100.
Once we have our price indices we can calculate annual rates of price inflation. The annual rate of CPI inflation in December 2010 is recorded at 3.7%. This means that the Consumer Price Index was 3.7% higher in December 2010 than it was December 2009. Similarly, the annual rate of CPI inflation in November 2010 of 3.3% means that consumer prices rose by 3.3% between November 2009 and November 2010. Across 2010 as a whole the CPI rose by 3.3%, so in excess of the Bank of England’s inflation rate target range, and significantly up on the 2.2% across 2009. The Bank has a symmetrical inflation rate target of 2% plus or minus 1 percentage point (you may want to read more about the Bank’s Monetary Policy Framework).
Let’s look to delve deeper because price indices are also available for product groups at two lower levels known as level 2 and level 3 product groups. For example, from within the food and non-alcoholic beverages group there is a price index wholly for food and within this one for vegetables. Again annual rates of price inflation can be found for level 2 and level 3 product groups.
If we consider food and non-alcoholic beverages we find an annual rate of price inflation for December of 6.1%. This was its highest annual rate since May 2009. Across 2010 as a whole we find that prices rose by 3.4%, very much in accordance with the overall CPI inflation rate. Inflationary pressures within this category are not new with 2008 seeing prices rises by 9.1% as compared with 3.6% for the overall CPI inflation rate. Over the past 5 years, food and non-alcoholic beverage inflation has typically been running at an annual rate of 5% while overall consumer price inflation has been running at 2.8%.
If we now focus on food alone, we find an annual rate of food price inflation in December of 5.7%. While this is a little lower than with the inclusion of non-alcoholic beverages, it is nonetheless a full 2 percentage points above the overall CPI inflation rate. Across the year as a whole food price inflation comes in bang on 3% highlighting the extent of the inflationary pressures in more recent months. This, however, still falls some way short of the pressures seen in 2008 when food prices rose by 10.1%. If we drop to level 3 to focus on groups within the food category we find inflation rates for oils and fats of 11%, for fish of 9% and for fruit of 8.6%.
Within the 12 broad groups the highest annual rate of price inflation is currently to be found for transport where the annual rate of price inflation in December was 6.5%. Across 2010, transport prices rose by 8.3% which compares a tad unfavourably with the 0.8% increase seen in 2009. If we drop down to the level 3 groups within this category we can trace the source of the price pressures more readily. The cost of air passenger transport in December was up over 12 months by 13.5% and, you may not be surprised to learn, the cost of fuel and lubricants was up by 12.9%.
We finish by noting the only level 1 category to see prices fall across 2010: clothing and footwear. This product group saw prices fall by 1% in 2010. But, even here price pressures have emerged. Between April 1992 and August 2010 clothing and footwear consistently recorded annual rates of price deflation. Since September this has ceased with positive annual rates of inflation. The annual rate of inflation for clothing and footwear in December was estimated at 1.5%. Perhaps those socks in my bottom drawer really will have to last me just a little bit longer!
Inflation is a blip says Bootle BBC News (21/1/11)
Fuel prices could rise by 4p in April BBC News (22/1/11)
Paul Lewis: Why inflation is starting to buy BBC News (20/1/11)
High levels of inflation remains a worry for Beijing BBC News (20/1/11)
Inflation ‘biggest money worry for families’ BBC News (19/1/11)
UK inflation rate rises to 3.7% BBC News (18/1/11)
Inflation hysterics Financial Times (19/1/11)
Top investors raise alarm on inflation Financial Times, Richard Milne, Dan McCrum and Robert Cookson (21/1/11) )
Inflation hits 3.7% after record monthly increase Guardian UK, Graeme Wearden (18/1/11)
We knew inflation would be bad, but not this bad Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/1/11)
The mystery of clothes inflation and the formula effect The Economist (21/1/11)
Latest on inflation Office for National Statistics (18/1/11)
Consumer Price Indices, Statistical Bulletin, March 2010 Office for National Statistics (18/1/11)
Consumer Price Indices, Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
For CPI (Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices) data for EU countries, see:
HICP European Central Bank
- Describe the process of compiling the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Are we comparing the cost of the same basket of goods and services across years? What about within a given year? (Further details are available in Consumer Price Indices – A Brief Guide).
- Explain the difference between an increase in the level of prices and an increase in the rate of price inflation. Can the rate of price inflation fall even if price levels are rising? Explain your answer.
- Why do you think policy-makers, such as the Monetary Policy Committee, would be interested in the inflation rates within the overall CPI inflation rate?
- What factors do you think lie behind the pressures on; (i) food prices; (ii) clothes prices; and (iii) transport prices? How would your answers help to inform how you would vote on interest rates if you were on the Monetary Policy Committee?
- The following are the consumer price index values for all items, food and non-alcoholic beverages, clothing and footwear and transport in 1988, 2009 and 2010. Use these values to calculate the percentage change between 1988 and 2010 and those between 2009 and 2010. Comment on your findings.
All items: 1988= 63.5; 2009= 110.8; 2010= 114.5
Food and non-alcoholic beverages: 1988= 68.2; 2009= 123.2; 2010= 127.4
Clothing and footwear: 1988= 163.8; 2009= 79.6; 2010= 78.8
Transport: 1988= 55.4; 2009= 112.7; 2010= 122.1
- How serious an economic issue do you think inflation is? Illustrate your answer drawing on real-world examples of the impact of inflation.
Rapid economic growth in China has pushed inflation to an 11-year high of 8.7% in February 2008. This was driven significantly by higher food prices, with the price of pork rising by nearly 64%. This higher level of inflation has led to concerns that policy may need to be tightened.
Sweet and sour pork The Economist (13/3/08)
China inflation hits fresh high BBC News Online (11/3/08)
Chinese inflation alarms authorities Guardian (11/3/08)
Chinese warn on decade-high inflation Times Online (5/3/08)
Chinese inflation shoots to 11-year high Times Online (11/3/07)
China tries to apply brakes to economy Guardian (4/3/08)
||What are the main causes of rising inflation in China?
||Assess the extent to which policy needs to be tightened to counter the rising level of inflation in China. What would be the possible downsides of such a policy?
||Discuss possible policy changes that could be implemented by the Chinese government to reduce the level of inflation.