Globalisation - in particular the rise of China and India - is driving a lot of these changes. The world oil price has risen by 80 per cent over the past 12 months and - since 2001 - China alone has accounted for about 40 per cent of the increase in oil demand. Global food prices have gone up by about 50 per cent this year. There are short-term reasons for this, such as a drought in Australia and pig disease in China. But the biggest long-term driver of increased prices is growing wealth in China and India.
As global food costs rise, are biofuels to blame?
Political instability over higher food prices is a key concern. Last year saw tortilla demonstrations in Mexico, pasta protests in Italy, and unrest in Pakistan over bread prices. Soybean prices, meanwhile, prompted demonstrations in front of Indonesia's presidential palace. Food inflation in China is a major problem.
But the connection between the expansion of biofuels and higher global food prices is not clear cut, with the biofuels industry saying its impact is relatively small and biofuel critics saying that ethanol plants are driving up the price of corn and biodiesel producers are taking a bite out of the soybean crop.
"The United States, in a misguided effort to reduce its oil insecurity by converting grain into fuel for cars, is generating global food insecurity on a scale never seen before," says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), an environmental think tank in Washington. World population growth will require food for an additional 70 million people this year, the EPI said in a report last week.
FAO forecasts continued high cereal prices
Rising Food Prices: Three Reasons
Food prices-Cheap no more
FOR as long as most people can remember, food has been getting cheaper and farming has been in decline. In 1974-2005 food prices on world markets fell by three-quarters in real terms. Food today is so cheap that the West is battling gluttony even as it scrapes piles of half-eaten leftovers into the bin.
That is why this year's price rise has been so extraordinary. Since the spring, wheat prices have doubled and almost every crop under the sun—maize, milk, oilseeds, you name it—is at or near a peak in nominal terms. The Economist's food-price index is higher today than at any time since it was created in 1845 (see chart). Even in real terms, prices have jumped by 75% since 2005. No doubt farmers will meet higher prices with investment and more production, but dearer food is likely to persist for years (see article). That is because “agflation” is underpinned by long-running changes in diet that accompany the growing wealth of emerging economies—the Chinese consumer who ate 20kg (44lb) of meat in 1985 will scoff over 50kg of the stuff this year. That in turn pushes up demand for grain: it takes 8kg of grain to produce one of beef.
Biofuel Demand Pushes Up Food Prices
The (Food) Price of Success
Who Is Harmed by the Surge in Food Prices?
Iraqis suffer soaring inflation
Food Inflation in China