High prices in 2022 lead to reductions, but war and weather threats persist
Global food commodity prices fell significantly over the course of 2022, declining 13.7% from record highs the previous year, according to new data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The FAO Food Price Index, which tracks monthly changes in international prices across a range of key staples, dropped to its lowest level since September 2021.
The decline brought welcome relief after two consecutive years of rising costs that put pressure on consumers worldwide. The FAO cited improved supplies, strong global production prospects, and eased logistics bottlenecks as factors behind the reversal. However, prices for some commodities like rice and sugar bucked the downward trend.
Table 1: Changes in Key Food Commodity Prices 2022 vs 2023
|Wheat prices dropped most due to Black Sea exports resuming. Coarse grain prices also fell back.
|Supplies rebounded with 2022/23 oilseed harvests.
|Milk production expanding on good pasture conditions.
|Poultry prices slid the most based on slowed imports from Ukraine and ample supplies elsewhere.
|Prices still historically high on lower harvests in Asia and adverse weather.
|Tight supplies with lower than expected crops in Asia.
“Behind the decline in agricultural commodity prices are more favorable production prospects for major crops, easing logistics constraints, and weaker global economic growth weighing on demand,” said FAO Chief Economist Maximo Torero Cullen. The index averaged 132.4 points in 2023, down from 153.3 points in 2022.
The complex nature of global food markets means prices could rapidly shift course again. Torero warned, “A lot will depend on weather conditions over the coming months in the northern hemisphere.” Unfavorable weather could cut harvests and quickly pushbenchmark prices back up.
War in Ukraine and extreme weather remain wild cards
Two of the biggest factors that sent food prices soaring to record levels in 2021 and 2022 — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and climate change impacts —did not dissipate over the past year. Their lingering influence continues to inject uncertainty and volatility into global commodity markets.
Russia and Ukraine together account for around 30% of globally traded wheat and 20% of corn exports. When the conflict erupted in February 2022, grain shipments from the Black Sea region were blocked, sparking fears of severe shortages. An agreement struck last summer finally allowed exports to resume along a UN-brokered maritime corridor. Over 10 million metric tons of grain have now shipped from Ukraine’s ports since August 2022.
However, Russian missile attacks on infrastructure within Ukraine remain an ongoing threat that could periodically disable Ukraine’s export capacity. Currently grain storage facilities are brimming with 2023’s harvest and awaiting export. Any disruption to the delicate Black Sea corridor framework risks renewed supply shortfalls and dramatic price hikes.
At the same time, extreme weather events driven by climate change dealt significant blows to major crop producers in 2022. Historic droughts, heat waves, and floods took a heavy toll across parts of Europe, China, and the United States. These conditions constrained yields for staple crops like wheat, corn, soybeans, and rice. More frequent and intense weather extremes expected in coming years could undermine global production stability and keep price volatility high.
Rice and sugar markets face greatest ongoing price risks
While prices for grains, vegetable oils, dairy products, and meats moved substantially lower in 2023 compared to 2022, two critical staples did not follow suit. International rice prices jumped 8% year-over-year, reaching levels not seen since 2018. Rice is a hugely important cereal grain that serves as the primary caloric staple for billions across Asia and Africa.
Similarly, global white sugar prices climbed 6% from 2022, staying locked near historical peaks. Adverse weather slashed sugarcane output in India and Thailand, two massive sugar exporting nations. Their reduced capacity to meet global import demand kept prices for the vital food additive at elevated levels.
With rice and sugar carrying substantial weight in food inflation baskets for consumers worldwide, their counter trend price moves are concerning. Rice and sugar costs filtered higher for shoppers in many countries last year, even as prices fell for items like cooking oils, cheese, and chicken. Their continued high pricing presents a worrying signal for household budgets in vulnerable, import-dependent regions.
Food inflation expected to moderate but affordability challenges remain
The Food and Agriculture Organization expects its benchmark Food Price Index to extend its decline over the first half of 2023. Grain prices could sink even lower on projections for massive wheat harvests over the coming months in Russia and elsewhere. Vegetable oil values should continue easing as well on strong palm oil output.
This would translate to milder overall food inflation in many places compared to the sharp rises observed since 2020. But prices are still substantially higher than pre-pandemic averages for nearly all agricultural commodities. Lingering macroeconomic headwinds like high energy costs and rising interest rates could hamper demand across agricultural sectors.
Ongoing elevated costs for key imported food staples imply lasting affordability issues for many consumers globally. This is especially true across lower income regions like South Asia, Africa, and parts of the Middle East. Households in these areas face reduced purchasing power, heightening risks of food insecurity and malnutrition.
While the FAO Food Price Index’s downward slope marks a step in the right direction, the global food system faces embedded fragility. As Torero concludes, “There is no room for complacency if we want to prevent cycles of excessive price volatility.” Building resilience requires addressing systemic vulnerabilities laid bare by the cumulative crises of recent years. Promoting lasting food security hinges on investments in climate-smart agriculture, improved social safety nets for at-risk groups, open and stable global trade flows, and productive diplomacy to defuse conflicts.
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