Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The rising cost of food - get the data

The rising cost of food - get the data

According to the UN's latest update on global food prices, the cost of basic foods is still 37% higher than it was last year
Get the data on global food prices since 1990
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A farmer throws a bunch of cut rice stalks in a paddy field at Singrijan, on the outskirt of Dimapur in north eastern Nagaland. Photograph: Str/AFP/Getty Images

The last monthly report on global food prices before the summer is now out.

According to data from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), published Tuesday, global food prices have barely budged since April but the big picture remains bleak: the global price for a basket of basic foods is still 37% higher than it was this time last year.

High and volatile food prices are also likely to prevail for the rest of the year, and into 2012, according to the FAO's biannual report on global food markets, also published on Tuesday. The UN agency warns that weather conditions - too much or too little rain - could weaken maize and wheat yields in Europe and North America, and an overall rundown on food inventories is set to tighten global supply.

Earlier this year, international food prices soared to levels last seen in 2007-08, when a global food crisis provoked riots in 30 countries. Last week, Oxfam launched a new international campaign on the global food system, warning that food prices could double over the next 20 years and mark the beginning of a permanent food crisis.

The FAO food index averaged 232 points in May, down only slightly from 235 points in April when the World Bank said rising food prices had pushed 44 million more people into extreme poverty, (those living on $1.25 a day). The FAO food price index takes the average of five price indices (meat, dairy, cereals, oils and sugar) and considers a total of 55 commodity quotations deemed representative of international food prices by FAO specialists.


Behind the soaring food prices lies a debate about what's to blame. Everyone has a favourite culprit: a growing population, a concentration of corporate control, a booming biofuels industry, China's demand for meat. Others point to the massive influx of big investors into deregulated commodities markets – searching for a "safe bet" after the dotcom bubble burst – who speculate on the future price of food. On Sunday, a UN conference on trade and development said it may be necessary for governments to intervene with regulation to rein in rising food prices. The FAO adds that more must be done to improve transparency in global food markets.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that current food prices could push the agency into a serious budget gap where it might need to make painful decisions - reducing rations or cutting the number of people who receive WFP food aid.

Meanwhile governments in developing countries around the world are struggling to contain food prices and fear fresh food riots. In Caribbean countries, which are increasingly dependent on imported food, governments have called on citizens to start planting vegetable gardens and buy local produce. And in Kenya, the national consumer federation has filed a case in the high court to force the government to reduce prices of food and fuel, while labour and consumer groups have joined together to threaten mass action over the soaring price of unga (maize flour).

What to do about high and volatile food prices will no doubt top the agenda when G20 agricultural ministers gather in Paris for their first official meeting.
In the meantime, we've pulled out all the data on global food prices from the FAO. Some highlights:
• In May, the FAO food price index averaged 232 points, down only slightly from 235 in April and still up 37% from last year. The slight drop in the cost of cereals and sugar was more than offset by increases in meat and dairy prices
• The index has hovered above 231 points since the beginning of 2011, and reached a historic peak of 237 points in February - higher than the average 213.5 points in 2008 and the highest level since the UN food agency began monitoring food prices in 1990
• The global cost of meat hit a record high in May, with 183 points on the FAO's meat price index
• The cost of oils and fats remained unchanged in May, at 259 points. But this is still historically high and up 52% from last year
• The overall index dropped to its lowest level in May 2002, at 85.3 points
• The cost of sugar spiked in 2006, 2010, and again in 2011. In May the sugar index fell just under 311 points, down 10% from April and 26% from January. The FAO points to the new crushing season in Brazil and larger than anticipated production in Thailand as possible explanations.
Note: The next Food Price Index comes out after the summer recess, on 8 September.
The full data is below. What can you do with it?

[Data summary and links to various open data]

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Biofuels are a wide range of fuels which are in some way derived from biomass.

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