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World Bank Reverses Course on Blame for 2007/2008 Commodity and Food Price Spike

July 30, 2010


A newly released report  from the Development Prospects Group at the World Bank, conludes that "...the effect of biofuels on food prices has not been as large as originally thought, but that the use of commodities by financial investors (the so-called "financialization of commodities") may have been partly responsible for the 2007/08 spike."  That is a far cry from the World Bank's first take on the issue when it blamed biofuels for 75% of spike in non-energy commodity prices. In this latest report entitled "Placing the 2006/08 Commodity Price Boom into Perspective", the authors note that biofuels production accounts for just a fraction of total global grain and oilseed use, and therefore claims that exaggerate their role are dubious at best. The authors note on page 12 of their report:  "Yet, worldwide, biofuels account for only about 1.5 percent of the area under grains/oilseeds. This raises serious doubts about claims that biofuels account for a big shift in global demand. Even though widespread perceptions about such a shift played a big role during the recent commodity price boom, it is striking that maize prices hardly moved during the first period of increase in US ethanol production, and oilseed prices dropped when the EU increased impressively its use of biodiesel. On the other hand, prices spiked while ethanol use was slowing down in the US and biodiesel use was stabilizing in the EU." The authors also assign blame where they think is appropriate, fingering energy prices (namely oil) and speculation as key drivers.  "Fiscal expansion in many countries and lax monetary policy created an environment that favored high commodity prices.  The depreciation of the US dollar—the currency of choice for most international commodity transactions— strengthened demand (and limited supply) from non-US$ commodity consumers (and producers). Other important contributing factors include low past investment especially in extractive commodities; investment fund activity by financial institutions that chose to include commodities in their portfolios; and geopolitical concerns, especially in energy markets." Since the beginning of the so-called food and fuel debate, world leaders and experts in both agriculture and ethanol production pointed to a host of factors that are far more significant in determining the price of commodities and food, including oil price, speculation, and weather.  Here is just a sampling: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer: Secretary Schafer said only about 25 percent of the corn crop goes to make ethanol and that the forces driving rising prices in corn and other commodities has more to do with energy costs, increased consumption around the world and weather-related production problems. Critics who blame high food prices on US policies they claim encourage corn to be diverted from food and livestock feed to alternative fuels are "flat out wrong," said Schafer. Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej: Prime Minister Samak "lashed out at the World Bank and the United Nations for criticising biofuel producing nations for soaring food prices while sparing oil exporters." "Let me ask the World Bank whether they used to ask oil exporting countries before pointing their fingers and blaming us that we have to use rice fields to grow biofuel crops," Samak told reporters.  "They have unreasonably continued to inflate oil prices even though the oil supply is not running out yet," he added. Potash Corp. CEO Bill Doyle (Potash is the world's largest fertilizer company): "I think that ethanol is the most popular whipping boy in the agricultural world at the moment," Doyle told analysts on a conference call on Thursday. Doyle, who has talked about declining world grain stocks for years, noted 95 percent of the world's grain crop this year will be used for food. "So to say that biofuels are the culprit clearly underestimates the demand and really shows a gross misunderstanding of the world food situation," Doyle said.   While the biofuels industry has long what these authors have now concluded, this report wasn't without its own suprises.  In particular, the authors dramatically down played the role of increasing demand in developing nations as a driving factor in higher commodity prices.  That part of the widely held wisdom explaining the dramatic price increases we witnessed. The report, beyond validating the claims of biofuel advocates and agricultural market experts that biofuels were not to blame, underscores a key point in the whole debate:  before we start pointing fingers, let's make sure we have all the facts.  Unfortunately, this lesson is likely to go unlearned as the court of public opinion does not concern itself too often with the facts.