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By Robert Rapier on Feb 15, 2008 with no responses

Impending Food Crisis?

I know this is my second pessimistic post this week, but along with an energy crunch, I have been concerned about a food crunch. The whole ethanol love affair has had me worried for a long time about the impact on food supplies. My concern has been that as we diverted corn to ethanol, corn prices would go up (affecting food prices) but that also other crops would be affected. Some cropland would be shifted to corn, to take advantage of the artificial market created by the ethanol mandates, and this could cause acreage of other crops to fall short.

And if you look at USDA Long Term Crop Projections, you will see that in fact, as corn prices climbed due to ethanol mandates, the amount of acres devoted to wheat and soybeans decreased – which has exacerbated an already difficult wheat situation. (Though they are expecting wheat acreage to rebound this year due to very high prices).

My good friend, Nate Hagens (a very level-headed guy), at The Oil Drum notes today:

Hard red wheat is limit up again (i think thats 9 days out of 11) and is at $19.80 a bushel. When it broke $6 a bushel last summer that was an all time high. I have to believe there are going to shortages. I know I can’t buy in bulk at local bulk food store right now – orders are backlogged. Ticker symbol MWH8. I don’t know enough about the differences between soft and hard wheat other than the hard has more protein and is used in breads, bagels etc. Wow. $20 a bushel….

Now there is an article from today’s FT suggesting that we are on the cusp of a food crisis:

The next crisis will be over food

A few days ago, I happened to hear Goldman Sachs discuss the state of the global financial system with European clients.

And what struck me most forcefully from this analysis – aside from the usual, horrific litany of bank woes – was just how much trouble is quietly brewing in corners of the commodities world.

Never mind that oil prices are high; that problem is already well known and gallons of ink have been spilt debating that, along with the pressures in metals and mineral spheres.

Instead, what is really catching the attention of Goldman Sachs now is the outlook for agricultural prices. Or as Jeff Currie, head of commodities research at the US bank, says with disarming cheer: “We think we could go into crisis mode in many commodities sectors in the next 12 to 18 months . . . and I would argue that agriculture is key here.”

Following that, a troubling historical note:

Now, to some readers of the Financial Times, that observation might seem odd. After all, inhabitants of the western world typically spend far more time worrying about the price of petrol for their car, rather than the price of wheat or corn. And when western investors do think about “commodity shock”, their reference point typically tends to be the 1970s oil crisis.

However, as Mr Currie observes, this is a dangerously blinkered view. Back in the 1970s, famine touched a much bigger proportion of the world’s population than the energy crisis, he says. And even today, rising food prices pack a powerful political punch in the developing (or partly-developed) world, to a degree that is sometimes underappreciated by the pampered west.

And the writing is on the wall in Africa:

Now, for any investor who is long on commodities right now (and I would guess that club includes Goldman Sachs), such trends might seem to smack of good news. For anybody who is dirt poor in the developing world, however, the picture is disastrous.

A WFP official, for example, recently showed me the red plastic cup that is used to dole out daily rations to starving Africans – and then explained, in graphically moving terms, that this vessel is typically now only being filled by two-thirds each day, because food prices are rising faster than the WFP budget.

Now I will be the first to acknowledge that higher energy prices across the board are a contributing factor here, but we have made matters worse with worldwide mandates that result in converting food into fuel.