I’ve been having a conversation about food prices. It’s a fact that they have skyrocketed lately, and they don’t look like they’re going to go down soon. Why is that?
The first reason is, of course, that now we are more people eating. I personally haven’t changed my eating habits, but a lot of Chinese, fortunately, have. The huge Asian country witnessed the birth and nurturing of million of “little Buddhas” that serve as a sign that a lot of Chinese don’t suffer the fate of their not-only-culturally impoverished parents. And the more people eating, the more scarce food becomes, and that drives prices up, the simple law of demand.
Prices soaring? Not guilty!
Another way of explaining why the prices raise is because of utility. Utility describes what the consumers feel about the products: the more utility, the more people are willing to pay for it. Food is not only useful but really necessary. That necessity is expressed in the price. Utility, thus, is part of the price of the product. If this was the beginning of the XXth century, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk would say it’s not utility but marginal utility, and he’d be right. The utility depends on the eyes of the beholder. And the utility of food becomes less important as you are fed, and then focus to things like not-so-useful diamonds.
Thus the price is ultimately related to scarcity and utility. Food becoming more scarce means that we’re going to pay more for it. And don’t expect that to change.
But is it so great the difference between food consumptions? A few years ago we had all these surpluses at both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, not knowing what to do with so much cereals and milk, heavy-subsidised goods, and now we are running out of them? That surely would mean great savings for the EU and US governments and tax-payers!
So, where have all the surpluses gone? Have the “little Buddhas” eaten so much? I don’t think so.
A system is, by definition, an ordered set of elements that includes relationships between them. In a price system then, there are not only products, but also a series of relationships that link them. Those relationships are key to understanding the whole system. Some of them establish products as complementary or substitutionary. The former will need each other thus demand of fuel will raise the more vehicles exist, the latter will substitute each other thus the use for private cars will shrink in congested cities that develop efficient mass-transportation systems. In that case the perceived utility for public transportation will be greater for some people, boosting demand.
Surprisingly substitutive: guilty!
When biofuel was invented everyone hailed the newborn as a chance for sustainable energy production. Now we had something useful and expensive to convert our cereal overstocks into. Very high subsidies were required to start building alternative sources of energy like this one, but there was a case for it: less dependency from “dangerous countries” and a lot of big corporations interested in the processes (and subsidies). A great alternative to fossil fuels was being born, and also a less polluting one.
But what we didn’t anticipate was that move would tie prices of food and energy together. Thanks to the newly created market distortion (sorry, I mean subsidy) now there are new induced scarcities throughout the food chain: for example less and more expensive grain for livestock for example. Nobody anticipated either, until the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen did, that more farming requires more nitrogen, and that nitrogen is highly polluting, especially when it gets released to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O) by means of biofuel.
There are many implications of the use of biofuels, some positive, some are not. But it’s not easy to take a look to the global picture. In between of so many interested views and sponsored applied science it will take some time and a lot of effort to get perspective on the issue. But one thing is clear: don’t blame it on the “little Buddhas”.