Tuesday, March 22, 2011

“Pork chops.”
“I think we’re going to have pork chops tonight. I love pork chops. We’ll probably have some sweet corn and some iced tea too. Mmmmmmm.”
In college, I worked for an old guy who refinished high school gym floors in the hot summers. On our long road trips to and from jobs, we would often have long discussions about one of our favorite subjects — food. Whenever conversation of the day’s work trailed off into long stretches of silence, he would inevitably blurt out the name of one of his favorite foods, usually whatever his wife was making for dinner.
I too love talking about food, and his dinner discussions would always result in resumption of lively conversation for the duration of the trip. People love talking about food and, in recent years, it has become clear that they also love to talk about the rising prices of food.
U.S. food price inflation reached 7.5 percent in September 2008 before falling 10.5 percent by November 2009. The inflation has been moving back up, and generating plenty of discussion, ever since. What factors are to blame for the increasing sticker shock at the grocery store?
“Though several factors contribute to increased food costs, farm commodities continually receive the blame, but farm products represent only 19 percent of retail food prices. Prices of many agricultural commodities are still less than the levels that sparked 2008 food riots and real food prices have decreased 75 percent since 1950,” said Dwayne Siekman, CEO of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association. “Yes, grain prices are at increased levels. So, too, are the costs of supplementary root causes of increased grocery store prices including labor, energy, product marketing/packaging/shipping and speculation of the commodity markets.”
Siekman also points to the higher prices for imported food due to the weak dollar on the world market. In addition, the recent problems in Egypt and Libya have sent oil prices over $100 a barrel, which consumers pay for at the pump and the grocery store.
“We’re in a world today where food companies operate on the assumption that crude oil prices are going to be $85 to $95 a barrel,” said Corinne Alexander, Purdue University economist. “Current prices are somewhere around $105 to $110 a barrel.”
The extra costs of shipping food are passed on to consumers, she said. Alexander also said that grain shortages and extreme weather in critical crop-producing regions have combined to send retail food prices higher this year. American consumers can expect to spend about 4 percent more for food this year than in 2010, Alexander said. Beef, pork and poultry products likely will see even greater price hikes.
“With higher grain costs, the biggest food inflation price impacts we expect to see are in the livestock area,” Alexander said. “Because those feed costs are up, we’re expecting beef prices to be up on the order of 5.5 to 6.5 percent in the coming year. Pork prices will be up on the order of 7 to 8 percent. Poultry prices will rise more moderately because it doesn’t take near as much grain to get a pound of chicken as it does a pound of pork or beef, so chicken prices will be up about 3 to 4 percent.”
She said this convergence of world factors is not a long-term situation, however.
“We’re returning to a period of food price inflation after coming off a period where we saw food price deflation,” Alexander said. “We don’t expect this to be a long-term, permanent higher food price period. We’ll see these higher food prices until we rebuild global stocks of the primary crops.”
The good news is that, by global standards, our food is still an unbelievable value in this country. In places such as Bangladesh, consumers spend 40 to 50 percent of their income on food, while the total amount the average U.S. family spends on food continues to be about 10 percent of their take-home income. Now that is something to talk about.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

With spring planting on the horizon after a long cold winter, Ohio’s farmers will once again plant Ohio’s rich soils to produce abundant food for the state and the world. Unfortunately, despite this unprecedented bounty of agriculture, people around the world continue to suffer from horrors of hunger, some right here in Ohio.

“[Hunger’s] cascading impact goes far beyond just the pangs and physical discomfort that accompany it. Hunger also affects the human spirit…This horror gnaws at the heart, perhaps even more than it gnaws at the stomach and it colors every other aspect of life,” wrote Richard Stearns, president of World Vision U.S., in his book, “The hole in our gospel.”

Fortunately for many, Ohio agriculture has long been at work on this vitally important issue of local and world hunger through a variety of efforts. Here are a few recent examples.

With a goal of providing 100,000 pounds of pork, or 500,000 meals to Ohio’s needy, the Ohio Pork Producers Council (OPPC) is working with the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, the Ohio Association of Meat Processors and the Ohio Corn Marketing Program.

“In a state where agriculture is the No. 1 economic contributor, I am saddened that so many Ohioans go hungry on a regular basis,” said Dick Isler, OPPC executive vice president. “Food is a basic need that should be readily available to all Ohioans. Through the Pork Power program, Ohio’s hog farmers are committed to making that a reality by giving back to those who are less fortunate.”

Ohio soybean growers support the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health (WISHH) that regularly sends high protein soy products to those in need around the world. Late last year, WISHH teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ship soy flour to Afghanistan. The 3,525 50-pound bags of soy flour provided high-protein soy to 5,000 Afghan women and their families for four months.

WISHH launched the USDA-funded Soybeans in Agricultural Renewal of Afghanistan project to benefit Afghan farmers, food processors, and rural communities, as well as women and children. It provides a total of 240 metric tons of defatted soy flour, 13,750 metric tons of soybean oil and 6,000 metric tons of soybeans over three years. Over the life of the program and all of its activities, this project will benefit more than 405,000 Afghan people.

Ohio State’s agricultural programs have long been involved with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to help improve agricultural production in countries around the world including development, research and outreach projects in many sub-Saharan nations, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Swaziland, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia. Most recently, OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) has been awarded a $24 million USAID grant to improve agricultural productivity and food security in the East African nation of Tanzania.

The project is part of the U.S. government’s Feed the Future (FTF) initiative, which seeks to address the root causes of global hunger by sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and advancing global stability and prosperity. A nation of 35 million people, half of whom live in poverty, Tanzania — whose economy is largely dependent on agriculture — has been identified as a priority country for the FTF initiative.

“With global population exploding, and new uses for the crops we grow, this grant is critical for addressing poverty and hunger in this part of the world,” said Bobby Moser, Ohio State’s vice president for agricultural administration and dean of CFAES. “This grant validates Ohio State’s knowledge and tools for improving global food security and contributing to poverty alleviation and hunger reduction worldwide.”

The five-year grant will boost the training and research capabilities of Tanzania’s National Agricultural Research System and Sokoine University of Agriculture — the chief institution of higher learning, research and outreach for the agricultural and food industry in this country. A key outcome of the project will be the strengthening of Tanzania’s capabilities in agriculture and nutrition in the region, achieved in part through the training of 100 M.S. and 20 Ph.D. students from that country. The project will also address growing private-sector needs in food production, processing, marketing and distribution.

These are just a few of the efforts of Ohioans to help solve the problem of world hunger. While using less land, global food production is going to need to double in the next few decades to meet the needs of this growing world by embracing technology, conserving resources, and improving agricultural management in developing countries. It also would not hurt if more people would follow the lead of Ohio agriculture and share some of our bounty with those in need.