The worst drought for 50 years is inflicting huge damage on the US maize crop, with serious consequences for the overall international food supply.
The situation reminds us that even the most advanced agricultural systems are subject to the vagaries of the weather, leading to volatility in supplies and prices not just on domestic markets but also internationally. Climate change and extreme weather events will further complicate the picture.
US maize production had been expected to increase to record levels this year. That view will prove optimistic. Much of the reduced crop will be claimed by biofuel production in line with US federal mandates, leaving even less for food and feed markets. The August US Department of Agriculture estimates, announced today, will give a more precise idea for just how much the maize crop is reduced. Few people are expecting good news.
Maize prices have already gone higher than their 2008 and 2011 peaks, increasing by 23 per cent during July alone. Wheat prices have followed maize prices upwards. Repercussions are already being felt in the US livestock sector.
Unsurprisingly, the media has started talking about the possibility of a food crisis. Whether that happens depends not only on how long the drought lasts and how much damage it does to crops but on how far its impact spreads to other markets, whether there are further supply shocks and how countries react to the price movements.
In 2007-08 governments tended to react in a disorganised and erratic manner, which often accentuated global price rises, as was the case with the imposition of export restraints. Often the measures were not even effective in meeting the objective of stabilising domestic prices, as they often led to panic buying and hoarding.
Given all this, governments should be cautious, especially considering that high prices are not necessarily negative. Attractive producer prices will be needed in the coming months to entice producers to embark on a much needed increase of crop cultivation, especially in the southern hemisphere.
Some governments will be called to take a number of steps to alleviate the impact of the situation on the poorest consumers, for example through the targeted distribution of food at subsidised prices, increased reliance on non-commodities crops such as roots, tubers, and beans, and assisting small producers to get better seeds and other basic inputs. Over the longer term, strategies to increase local production and self-sufficiency should be implemented.
Fortunately rice supplies in 2012 are plentiful and rice prices stable, but they could also be driven higher by increasing prices of other cereals. Rice market stocks were also not problematic in 2007-08 but prices nevertheless increased dramatically. A lack of transparency and unco-ordinated unilateral actions by importing and exporting countries and media coverage all contributed to creating panic.
With world prices of cereals rising, the competition between the food, feed and fuel sectors for crops such as maize, sugar and oilseeds is likely to intensify. One way to alleviate some of the tension would be to lower or temporarily suspend the mandates on biofuels. At the moment, the renewable energy production in the US is reported to have reached 15.2bn gallons in 2012, for which it used the equivalent of some 121.9m tonnes or about 40 per cent of US maize production. An immediate, temporary suspension of that mandate would give some respite to the market and allow more of the crop to be channelled towards food and feed uses.
The US drought leaves global markets highly vulnerable to any further supply side shocks. While the current situation is precarious and could deteriorate further if unfavourable weather conditions persist, it is not a crisis yet. Countries and the UN are better equipped than in 2007-08 to face high food prices, with the introduction of its Agricultural Market Information System, which and promote co-ordination of policy responses.
在经受了美国旱情的影响之后，全球市场已无力再承受供应方面任何的进一步冲击。尽管当前形势不确定，而且如果恶劣的天气状况持续的话，形势可能还会恶化，但目前尚未出现危机。与2007-08年相比，目前各国与联合国(UN)更有把握应对高粮价，这是因为联合国启动了能够促进各国政策反应协调水平的农产品市场信息系统(Agricultural Market Information System)。
However, risks are high and the wrong responses to the current situation could create it. It is vitally important that any unilateral policy reactions from countries, whether importers or exporters, do not further destabilise the situation.
The writer is the director-general of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN
本文作者为联合国粮农组织(Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN)总干事