Food Prices – From Crisis to Stability

On the occasion of World Food Day, I gave a talk at an event hosted by National Institute of Nutrition earlier today. The event was co-organised by the Hyderabad Chapter of the Association of Food Scientists & Technologists of India and Oil Technologists Association of India Southern Zone.

The subject of my talk is the theme of this year’s World Food Day, “Food Prices – From Crisis to Stability”.

Here is a summary of what I spoke:

What is this crisis all about?

For five years now, the food prices have been at quite high levels and very volatile too. This unprecedented price hike started in 2007-08 and is still going strong, barring a dip last year…

Contrast this with the generally stable prices, with a secular downward trend in real prices for decades – helped by improving efficiencies in farm productivity and food value chain!

My today’s talk has two parts:

What caused this crisis? And, what are its implications?

What are the building blocks of a solution towards stability? And, what role can Food Scientists and Technologists play in building some of those blocks?

What caused this crisis in prices?

Everyone knows that price is an outcome of Demand & Supply dynamics. And, that subject to some elasticity numbers, prices in turn influence demand and supply.

So, let’s examine those demand and supply conditions that triggered this crisis…

Firstly, consumption rose faster than usual in recent times, as more people started consuming more food per capita – as most of the population rise, as well as income growth happened in developing countries where the per capita food consumption was very low compared to developed country numbers.

On the other hand, supply didn’t rise as much, as agricultural productivity dropped during this period. This was because investments in agriculture fell. Probably, due to complacency on part of the Governments around the world, based on the experience of the past decades. Share of agriculture in the Official Development Assistance in the last thirty years dropped from over 10% to under 5%.

A substantial portion of the earlier growth in agricultural production also came from area expansion. In recent times, large amount of land and some crops (eg corn) got diverted to non-food usage (eg fuel, factories and urbanisation)

In addition to these supply and demand aspects, there is another factor that aggravated the problem. Having identified the wide gap between demand and supply, institutional financial investors put very large amounts of funds into commodity markets. This caused further surge in prices. At another level, though, there is an argument that such amplification of weak signals by the derivative markets alerts production system to respond earlier than otherwise.

People who suffer the most from this price surge are obviously the poor consumers, but even te small farmers struggle. On the face of it, when the prices go up, farmers should gain; but, their decisions become risky when the prices are volatile. In any case, large part of the price rise goes to intermediaries, and part of the higher income goes into buying food not produced by themselves…

Let me now turn to the second part of my talk. That is, how to deal with this crisis?

There are some short term solutions… Regulate hoarding through measures like Essential Commodities Act, raising interest rates etc. Also, Governments stock more food as a buffer to distribute it to the poor with subsidies.

Both of these are good solutions that bring immediate relief, but have a negative impact in the long run as these measures distort the market, causing Private Sector to withdraw their investments in agriculture.

There is a third short term solution that can have better impact, but unfortunately isn’t used much! Governments must act in anticipation and open up imports or alter tariffs, instead of acting much after the crisis hits! This, of course, requires high quality market intelligence and entrepreneurial governance systems.

The real long term solution is raising supply ie. more agricultural production…

Before we see how to raise agri production, let’s look at the order of magnitude of the challenge. By 2050, the world population will touch 9 billion (up a third from the current 7 billion); more people will live in urban areas (70% vs today’s 49%) and incomes will grow significantly (in today’s world GDP, developing nations’ share is just about 20%, that will go up to 50%). To feed this larger, more urban and richer population, the world needs to produce 3 billion tons of cereals (vs today’s 2 billion tons) and a half billion tons of meat (vs today’s 270 million tons)

As we attempt to raise production to such levels, whether by bringing more forest land into cultivation or intensifying agricultural input usage, there is a huge concern about its impact on ecology that is already fragile.

And then, there is a third dimension. Inequity in food consumption. A billion people at the top end are exposing themselves to huge health risks by eating overly rich diets, while the billion people at the bottom, who don’t have enough to eat, suffer from acute malnutrition.

Many people try to solve these problems, but one at a time based on their domain. This may, in fact, be the reason for the real problem! The need is to find a long term solution that deals with all these challenges “together”.

“Feeding nine billion people in a sustainable and equitable way will probably be one of the greatest challenges our civilisation has ever faced” says Dr Foley of University of Minnesota, in a recent paper.

To raise production, we need large investments in Agriculture. An FAO committee estimates that the investments by developing countries need to go up by 50% from the current $140 billion p.a.

Investments are required in hard infrastructure like irrigation and power, as well as soft infrastructure like agri extension services, to raise productivity in underproductive regions that have potential. Simultaneously, input usage intensity needs to reduce in over-exploited regions.

More than 80% of the future increase in production needs to come from productivity improvement, as only 20% can come from area expansion – the conversion of forests and grasslands to agricultural use has to stop forthwith, as the environmental damage far exceeds the increased food production. In fact, scope for area expansion in India is negligible… This calls for investments in R&D to reverse the trend of stagnating yields.

Then there are some medium term solutions (actually these cut across short & long terms; in that sense, medium may be a wrong label)

More food that the world produces must reach people’s plates than it is today. If developing countries must reduce losses in the post-harvest stage, the developed countries must educate their consumers to cut the wastage of food.

This food must also reach people’s plates at lower cost. Transaction costs must be cut through infrastructure investments and by eliminating non-value adding intermediation.

And, the food must be right too! For example, more efficient chicken compared to the less efficient beef. Or, more importantly, low-cost nutrition for the poor; and more healthy food for the rich.

It is in the context of this set of medium term solutions, that I wanted to bring up the role of food scientists and technologists, who make up most of the audience here today.

Your goal must be, “to deliver healthy food to the consumer safely, by preserving the quality and to ensure year round availability”. To do that, you need to work at the intersection of several science disciplines, as you have always done…

Fortify foods with vitamins and minerals, and build functional foods that cater to specific consumer segments beyond nutrition. Leverage your understanding of Nutrition for that. Dal Analogue from Soybeans has been one of my favourite projects to deliver low cost nutrition to the poor in India.

Extend the shelf life of food through your knowledge of chemistry; and, leverage biology to deal with post harvest plant physiology.

Raise the efficiency in food manufacturing processes to preserve the food attributes using Physics discipline.

Deliver the taste, texture, flavour etc to meet the demands of different consumers, by using your competence in Sensory Science and Material Science.

Through all these suggestions, about which you know more than I do, all I want to say is that Food Scientists and Technologists have to play a vital role in transforming the food economy to stability from its current crisis. I am sure, you are game for that 🙂