This is getting a bit tiresome. The New York Times ran a three-page, chicken-little article (front-page, above-the-fold) in Sunday’s paper explaining the disaster in world food production that awaits humanity because of anthropogenic global warming. It explained that food demand is outstripping supply, causing price spikes:
The rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries.
Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — has outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost.
It never even tried to ascertain whether price spikes might be a function of something other than supply and demand; such as whether international prices for food commodities might have a little something to do with the supply and demand metrics of the money in which they are priced.
Has there been an imbalance in supply and demand for foodstuffs causing prices to spike? No, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (the easy-to-read chart is unfortunately beyond my limited technical expertise to transfer–I encourage you to go directly to the source and see for yourself what a bunch of nonsense this NYT article describes), demand for cereal production comprising the four main cereals has risen steadily over the last ten years, from about 1900 million tonnes to just under 2300 million tonnes; output has varied from a high in 2008/09 of just under 2300 million tonnes to a low of about 1850 million tonnes in 2002, which was about 100 million tonnes less than demand in that year, the biggest shortfall of the decade. In 2008, the surplus was about 100 million tonnes greater than demand. Excess stocks have varied from a surplus of 600 million tonnes (2000) to a little over 400 million in 2006 and again in 2007. Last year, excess stocks were about 520 million tonnes. Because excess stocks have remained relatively stable while demand has grown, excess is now smaller as a percent of usage than it was at the start of the decade.
Thus demand has steadily grown, and supply, though more erratically, has grown along with it. That is the story of the last decade in the world food market; not some yawning imbalance between supply and demand, nor some withering decline in the safety stockpile.
However, price fluctuations have not been so benign and predictable, as the chart of agricultural commodities prices from FRED shows:
Commodities are priced in dollars, so this beautifully captures the price increases that the article describes, though it applies specifically only to domestic markets. If prices are going up in the dollars in which commodities are priced for international trade, then unless the value of the dollar is also falling relative to other currencies, the prices other countries pay is also going up. But the exchange value of dollars closely mirrors (in reverse image) the spikes in commodities prices:
No surprise here. The value of the dollar in foreign currency markets is inversely correlated to the prices of agricultural commodities. It appears to be a pretty strong correlation: The dollar goes down, commodities prices go up, and vice versa. Prices for wheat, corn, soybeans and rice may be more expensive for Americans, but they might actually be cheaper for our major trading partners, depending on the magnitude of the exchange rate differences vis a vis the price increases.
But no. That’s not it. It is anthropogenic-global-warming-induced supply shortages in the face of increasing demand that is driving prices higher. Life is always more meaningful and exciting when settling on the fantastic and emotional explanations for things that affect us; it become stultifying and boring to settle on the reasonable and objective answer, and especially so when the fruit hangs so low to the ground.
This article is itself low-hanging fruit–a perfect example of the occlusion of belief that compels AGW proponents to see things as they wish to see them, and ignore, or refute, things as they really are. This article would have done proud a medieval priest explaining the transit of the sun to an enthralled and credulous group of villagers, “As you can all see, the earth stays still and the sun moves through the sky, nevermind Galileo’s nonsense.” By everything they’d been taught, and what they could plainly see, the argument was irrefutable. Just the same as, “You can all see, the price of money hasn’t a thing to do with the price of wheat, corn, rice and beans. It is the heat, you see, of anthropogenic-global-warming that is causing these dollars to shrivel up and buy fewer grains.”
The bottom line is that the New York Times should be ashamed of itself. This is not an objectively-reasoned piece humbly pursuing truth. It is a narrative that would make a polemicist blush. It is brimming with hyperbole and conjecture, making statements like, “A rising unease about the future of the world’s food supply came through during interviews this year with more than 50 agricultural experts working in nine countries.” Tell me, what business does a statement like that have in a newspaper, except on the opinion pages? How does a statement like that square with “focusing on the central arguments in the climate debate and examining the evidence for global warming and its consequences” as the Times claims is the prerogative for the series of stories? What exactly does it mean when a journalist senses “a rising unease…during interviews…with experts”? Maybe the experts had gas. The article sure smelled.