World prices for basic food commodities (grains, soyabeans, vegetable oils) were up 40% in May 2021 on their level in May 2020, and the trend is accelerating.
The impact on food prices in shops is high at present in Nigeria and West Africa. It has been low in Britain, Europe, the USA, and China. Food prices are now moderating in India, after about 10% inflation in 2020. Shop food prices depend on processing costs as well as world basic-commodity prices, and those may filter through into shop prices only with delay.
Still, the rise in the underlying index is comparable in size to the food-commodity price spike of 2009-2011 which triggered the “Arab Spring”. It comes after some years of falling or moderate prices.
Drought in Brazil, huge soyabean buying by China, which is rebuilding its pig population after swine flu, and higher transport costs, are factors. But Indian economists reckon that speculation is key. According to Global Justice Now, between 1996 and 2014 “the share of the markets for basic foods like wheat held by speculators [banks, hedge funds, pension funds] increased from 12% to 61%”.
Speculators buy up stocks if they reckon prices will rise (because of post-pandemic booms and re-stocking?). When enough speculators do that, the reckoning becomes fact. Prices do rise.
Eventually, prices will ease off again. But how do the hungry eat in the meantime? The United Nations World Food Program reports on other drivers of food insecurity. 100 million people were in acute food insecurity in 2020 because of wars and conflicts (as in Yemen, for example), according to the WFP.
Economic shocks, often due to the pandemic, were another driver, hitting 40 million people, up from 24 million. For once, weather extremes had less impact year-on-year, hitting 16 million, down from 34 million in 2019.
In Britain, Tory cuts have had the impact (on a milder scale) that high prices, wars, pandemic disruptions, and storms have had elsewhere.
The biggest food-bank operator, the Trussell Trust, reported a 33% rise in distribution in the year April 2020 to March 2021 compared to 2019-20; a level 128% higher than 2015-6.
A basic tenet of socialism, and one entirely practical with current technology, is to make adequate food freely available to all, not just to the well-off.