World Food Prices Climb on Sugar, Dairy Costs, Stoking Inflation Pressure

World food prices rose in June as the cost of sugar, meat and dairy increased, adding to inflationary pressure that has prompted central banks across the world to raise interest rates.

An index of 55 food commodities rose to 233.8 points from 231.4 points in May, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report on its website today. The gauge climbed to an all-time high of 237.7 in February.

Food will remain costly in the next few years and price swings will be around “for a long time,” Jose Graziano da Silva, the FAO’s director-general elect, said June 27. The European Central Bank raised rates today for the second time this year and China did so for the third time yesterday in a bid to control inflation partly blamed on food costs.

“We’re not yet seeing any break,” Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist at the FAO, said via phone from Rome today. “Almost in every country, including in Europe, the issue of higher food prices has already become tangible.”

The price of staple foods including corn will more than double in two decades without action, Oxfam International said in May. World food output will have to rise 70 percent by 2050 as the global population climbs to 9.2 billion from an estimated 6.9 billion in 2010, the FAO estimates.

Agricultural Output

Growth in agricultural output will slow to 1.7 percent a year through 2020, compared with 2.6 percent in the previous decade, FAO and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said in a report last month.

“The question of how to satisfy the food needs of an expanding population with ever more sophisticated tastes and an increasingly unified mode of consumption is getting even more pressing,” analysts Veronique Riches-Flores and Loic de Galzain at Societe Generale SA wrote in a report yesterday.

The FAO sugar index jumped 15 percent to 357.7 points, as production in Brazil, the world’s largest producer of the sweetener, is forecast to fall below last year’s level, the FAO said. That lifted the entire food index, Abbassian said. Raw sugar futures jumped 14 percent in New York last month.

“The surprise was sugar,” Abbassian said. “If it wasn’t for sugar we would certainly see a decline.”

Policy makers in Europe are concerned that surging energy and commodity costs will spark a wage-price spiral, further entrenching inflation. The inflation rate in the 17-nation euro region was 2.7 percent in June, exceeding the ECB’s 2 percent ceiling for a seventh straight month.

ECB Meeting

The ECB will raise the benchmark by 25 basis points to 1.5 percent, when council members meet in Frankfurt today, according to all 55 economist forecasts in a Bloomberg News survey. The central bank may increase borrowing costs further in the fourth quarter, according to a separate survey.

The FAO’s dairy index rose to 231.6 points from 231.1 points, lifted by rising prices for skimmed-milk powder, while the gauge for meat prices advanced to 180.4 points from 180, matching the April record level. Poultry-meat prices rose 3 percent to a record, according to the FAO.

“High feed prices are making their way into those sectors,” Abbassian said. “Given the lag, one shouldn’t expect meat and dairy prices to come down just because the corn price came down last week.”

U.S. spot prices for milk rose 16 percent in June, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Cereals Index

The FAO cereals index fell for a second month to 258.5 points from 261.3 points in May. The index is still 71 percent above its year-earlier level.

“There has been some softening of prices, but with the big harvests coming in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the seasonal low,” Abbassian said. “And the seasonal low of this year is pretty high already, we’re well above last year.”

The FAO’s index of cereal prices fell to 151.2 points in June 2010, the lowest level for the year.

Corn prices fell 17 percent in Chicago in June, the biggest monthly decline since October 2008, while wheat slumped 21 percent, the biggest such drop since February 1986. Soybean futures fell 6 percent.

“Dangerous levels” of food prices had pushed about 44 million people into poverty since June,World Bank President Robert Zoellick said in February. Another 10 million may join them should the UN food index rise another 10 percent, the World Bank said April 16. The number of hungry people in the world declined last year to 925 million from more than 1 billion in 2009, according to the FAO.

Imports Bill

The world’s countries will spend $1.29 trillion to import food this year, the most ever and 21 percent more than in 2010, the FAO estimates.

The FAO, set up in 1945 as a specialized UN agency, says it leads international efforts to defeat hunger and helps developing countries improve farming. Its mandate includes lifting nutrition levels and agricultural productivity.

Global production of wheat, coarse grains and rice in the 2011-12 season will be more than forecast last month, the FAO said in a separate statement on its website today.

World wheat output will climb to 675.6 million metric tons from 653.9 million tons in 2010-11, 4.7 million tons more than its June 22 outlook, the FAO said. Production of coarse grains, which includes corn and barley, will rise to 1.16 billion tons from 1.12 billion tons, an increase of 5.9 tons from the June outlook, according to the FAO.

Rice production in 2011-12 is forecast to climb to 476.1 million tons from 463.7 million tons a year earlier, the FAO said. The outlook was raised by 600,000 tons from June 22.

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