The Chinese are buying food. That is what people in poor nations buy when they get less poor.
For China, the disparity between urban, coastal wealth and rural, interior wealth is enormous. People in interior towns are finding it very expensive to buy food. There are riots, which are not widely reported.
As for Egypt and other poor non-oil Arab nations, the rise in food prices is producing crises.
This is not going to change. It is going to get worse.
Poor Americans can get food stamps. This is what they are doing, by the tens of millions. The federal government is footing the bill.
Here is the situation.
Many factors seen over the past decade have produced higher food prices: population growth, urbanization, the decline of arable land per person, and the upgrading of diets for example. But more damaging than food inflation has been the pushing of global food prices out of their long, quiet envelope of stability.
The FAO Index (Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N) shows that, while prices are once again down from a peak, a troublesome volatility started to affect food prices this decade. These are the very prices that caused social instability in countries like Mexico in 2007-2008 (pressure on corn prices, owing in part to US corn ethanol mandates) and more recently in northern Africa (Arab Spring).
Commodity observers will note the rough correspondence with oil prices, and of course that’s no mistake. Inputs to food production are heavily composed of fossil fuels. In the same way that both high (and highly volatile) oil prices play havoc with economies, food prices and marginal speculation in food have done the same.
2011 also saw the highest average oil prices since 2008, at $94.81 per barrel. That is not far below the average high of 2008, at $99.67. In between was a crash in oil prices — and most commodities — which unfolded at a rate almost as rapid as the original run-ups from 2006-2008. What happens next?
The USDA has just released its Food CPI readings for 2011, along with their forecast for 2012.
With 11 months of data recorded, the outlook for the 2011 Consumer Price Index (CPI) and food price inflation has become clear. The CPI for all food is projected to increase 3.25 to 3.75 percent. Food-at-home (grocery store) prices are forecast to rise 4.25 to 4.75 percent, while food-away-from-home (restaurant) prices are forecast to increase 2 to 2.5 percent. Although food price inflation was relatively weak for most of 2009 and 2010, cost pressures on wholesale and retail food prices due to higher food commodity and energy prices, along with strengthening global food demand, have pushed inflation projections upward for 2011.
For 2012, food price inflation is expected to abate from 2011 levels but is projected to be slightly above the historical average for the past two decades. The all-food CPI is projected to increase 2.5 to 3.5 percent over 2011 levels, with food-at-home prices increasing 3 to 4 percent. . . .
As you may have heard, milk was the top commodity performer in 2011, up 40% on the year in the futures market. A question: do you think milk is a central staple in American family diets? There’s more. On a year-over-year basis through November, according to USDA, beef prices are up 9.8%, egg prices are up 10.25%, and potato prices are up 12%. . . .
Now, compare these price increases to the average individual Food Stamp benefit, which is basically flat year-over-year, moving from $133.79 in 2010 to $133.84 in 2011. And to the extent that households use Food Stamp benefits to plug overall cash flow problems, the very central and related pressure from higher gasoline prices also deflates the impact of the Food Stamp benefit.
The march higher in Food Stamp participation following the 2008 crisis has been relentless. The trend has paid no attention whatsoever to assertions of economic recovery or jobs growth in the US. . . .
In December of 2007, just after the declared start of the “recession,” national participation in SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) stood at 27.385 million. As of the latest data, this has ballooned to 46.268 million. . . .
It is time to budget for this trend.