Don't be quick to assign blame

ST.?PAUL -- If there is one thing I've learned from my dealings with economists over the years, it's that their work is very complicated and it's easy for even the smartest people to make incorrect assumptions if they overlook key factors. This m...

ST.?PAUL -- If there is one thing I've learned from my dealings with economists over the years, it's that their work is very complicated and it's easy for even the smartest people to make incorrect assumptions if they overlook key factors. This might be one reason we hear so many wildly different stories about the interplay between food prices and commodity prices.

Many people see food prices going up while at the same time farm commodity prices and renewable fuel prices are increasing. It's natural to make the conclusion that food prices are being driven by higher prices for corn and soybeans. It's also understandable that some people would make a link between the expansion of renewable fuels and increasing commodity prices. From there, it's not a huge leap to assume the extra demand created by renewable fuels production is to blame for rising food prices.

But as economists like to say, "correlation doesn't prove causation." That is, just because two or three factors rise or fall at roughly the same time, it doesn't mean you can assume that one of the factors is causing the changes in the other factors. Often, there is another unseen force influencing all three.

Economic lesson

This lesson was brought home by a recent study issued by Texas A&M University. The university's Agricultural and Food Policy Center looked at the effects of ethanol on food and feed prices, and found the following:


n The major force driving these economic changes is overall higher energy costs.

n Corn prices generally have had little to do with rising food costs.

n Important foods such as bread, eggs and milk have high prices that are largely unrelated to ethanol or corn prices, but correspond to global supply and demand relationships.

n Speculative fund activities in futures markets have brought more money and volatility to commodities markets.

I want to highlight the last two points here. Some media stories correctly have identified rising energy prices as a contributing factor for higher food and commodity prices, but I have seen little coverage of the game-changing impact of global demand and speculative investing.

Changing times

The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in the ability and desire of people in developing nations to purchase corn, soybeans, wheat, pork and other commodities. Where in the past few people were able to afford higher-end food items, we now are seeing large increases in demand from India, China and other countries. One recent study I came across found that increased meat consumption in China is diverting billions of bushels of grain per year to livestock feed.

The falling value of the U.S. dollar relative to other international currencies also makes U.S. food products more appealing. This means more demand for high-quality U.S. agricultural products, which is good. However, since the market is driven by supply and demand forces, higher demand means higher prices.


Speculative investing may be an even more important factor in the near term. According to a recent New York Times article, weaknesses in the markets for stocks, bonds and real estate have major investors (hedge funds, commercial banks, brokerage houses, etc.) shifting money into commodities markets in the hope of making the kinds of gains currently not available on Wall Street. According to a Chicago-based ag research firm, total index fund investment in corn, soybeans, wheat, cattle and hogs has increased to more than $47 billion, up from $10 billion in 2006.

This influx of cash drives up commodity prices, and can create major price volatility that has little relationship with real-world supply and demand forces. It can drive up prices in the food sector even beyond the increase we already would be seeing because of higher energy costs and increased global demand.

The Texas A&M study further discredits the "blame farmers for high prices" argument by reminding its readers that the farm share of retail food prices -- that is, the percentage of each consumer dollar spent on food that reflects the value of the raw product in that food -- is just below 20 percent. With the raw input such as wheat or corn comprising so little of the actual retail value of a food product, even significant increases in the value of the raw product should have relatively little impact on costs at the grocery store.

When you're dealing with systems as complex as financial markets, I doubt anyone can fully understand how the entire process works or exactly what influence each factor has on other parts of the system. What I am certain of, however, is that it is a mistake to finger Minnesota farmers or the renewable fuels industry they built as the primary cause for recent increases in retail food prices. I am even more certain that it would be a huge mistake to turn our back on our promising renewable fuels sector at a time when petroleum is setting new price record.

By the way, I was just recently in the grocery store and noticed that the price of bananas was up about 40 percent. Last time I checked, there was no corn used in the manufacturing of bananas.

Editor's Note: Hugoson is the Minnesota agriculture commissioner.

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