How worried should we be about the price of food?

Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England, made an apology last month. Not for inflation heading towards 10%, but for sounding ‘apocalyptic’ about the price of food.

The possibility of more increases in food prices was a ‘major worry’ for the UK economy, he said, as he warned of a ‘very big income shock’ and shortages of wheat and cooking oil.

Since he made that speech, the situation has, if anything, worsened, with reports of 25m metric tonnes of grain ‘trapped’ in Odessa – a figure which could, apparently, treble by the end of the summer as countries in Asia and Africa face food shortages.

It’s a simple law of economics that a reduction in supply and the same demand will send prices up. So how worried should we be? It’s a phrase beloved by the headline writers, but should we really worry about ‘heating or eating’?

Food prices will unquestionably continue to rise – and it is not just a problem for the UK. India has already halted wheat exports, saying that its ‘food security is at risk.’

The United Nations has warned of a global food crisis that ‘could last for years,’ with some poorer countries facing the possibility of long-term famines.

Last year, Ukraine produced 33m tonnes of wheat, of which it exported about 20m. As the world’s fifth largest exporter, that figure placed it behind France, Canada and the US with – inevitably – Russia at the top of the list. With sanctions having been imposed on the Russian economy, it is likely that Russia’s wheat may flow east to China – which recently suffered a poor harvest – rather than to the west.

Given all this, it is unsurprising that the price of Spring Wheat recently hit a 14-year high on US commodities markets, or that the president of large US food manufacturer recently joined Andrew Bailey in the ‘apocalyptic’ camp. Robert Unanue, President and CEO of Goya Foods said simply: “We are on the precipice of a food crisis.”

The problem, of course, is that food isn’t simply an ingredient like wheat. The price of aluminium for tinned goods is rising. Lesley O’Brien, director of Freight Link Europe, recently said that “pretty much everything you buy comes on the back of a truck”, and pointed out that the cost of running one lorry had risen by £20,000 compared to last year.

Should we be worried? It is difficult to avoid being worried. How worried you are will depend on your own financial circumstances – but if ever world events demonstrated the need for long term planning and saving for the proverbial ‘rainy day,’ it is surely those we are experiencing at the moment.