Food Disruptions Continue

According to the latest monthly report issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, global inflation has been relatively tame, with consumer prices rising just 1.4 percent in its 34 member countries through February. That’s a slight moderation from January’s reading of 1.7 percent and essentially mirrors the situation here in the U.S., where inflation ticked up by just 1.1 percent last month.

But while the overall global inflation trend is currently flat to down, if you drill into specific inflationary components you’ll see a very different picture.

The graph below shows the CRB/BLS Foodstuffs Index which tracks the spot price of 10 agricultural commodities; butter, cocoa, corn, hogs, lard, soybean oil, sugar, Minneapolis wheat and Kansas City Wheat. Since touching a 1-year low on December 19, the index has shot up by nearly 21 percent to a new 1-year high.

20140404-SOTF-Food Prices

A separate foodstuffs index tracked by the American Farm Bureau Federation showed a 3.5 percent year-over-year increase in March, largely thanks to double-digit increases in the price of bacon and ground chuck while basics such as bread, milk and eggs also posted gains in the high single-digits.

According to the Department of Agriculture, food prices here in the U.S. are expected to increase by between 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent this year.  If they do break the 3 percent mark, it will likely be the largest increase since 2011 and more than double last year’s 1.4 percent rise.

The rising cost of food isn’t an isolated U.S. problem. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s global food price index showed a big 2.3 percent year-over-year swing in March, hitting the highest level in nearly a year. If you drill down, the price of grains alone soared 5.2 percent to their highest cost since August. Sugar posted the largest increase of 7.9 percent with dairy prices being the only one to show a decrease in the month.

Here in the U.S. the soaring food prices are largely thanks to bad weather over the past several years. Droughts across much of the Western US and Texas have pushed grain prices higher, boosting feed costs and forcing ranchers to pare back their herds. That, in turn, has increased the cost of meat and dairy products across the country. The prices of other vegetables have also shot up thanks to dry weather across much of our country’s agricultural heartland over the past few years.

It is not just our own weather impacting American food prices, though. Drought in Brazil also spurred huge increases in the cost of coffee, sugar and oranges just to name a few affected commodities.

Even the weather isn’t solely to blame, with politics playing a role as well.

Thailand has been racked by strikes and protests as the legitimacy of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government has been questioned by many Thais. Protestors have blocked traffic, spooked tourists and managed to sufficiently disrupt recent elections that they will have to be held again. Strikes have also forced the country’s agricultural sector to a virtual halt, prompting a spike in sugarcane prices and raising concerns over the region’s rice supply.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea has also prompted a spike in corn and wheat prices. Ukraine is the fifth-largest wheat exporter and the third-largest corn exporter in the world, sending about 10 million tons of wheat and 18.5 million tons of corn abroad. That’s roughly 16 percent of the global grain supply.

Given that most of Ukraine’s major ports are located in Crimea, there have been concerns that exports could be disrupted, especially if the crisis escalates. While prices have eased a bit after contributing to the major spike in European prices last month, they remain elevated and could spike again if Russia makes another aggressive move in the region.

In this era of globalization the world’s food supplies are so interlinked that disruptions anywhere, regardless of whether they’re related to weather or politics, have significant impacts on the rest of the world. The same is true for any component of the commodities complex, whether it is metals, energy or agriculture. So don’t let seemingly benign headline numbers lull you into a sense of security.