World food import bill set to rise this year, says FAO
Published in SUNS #8584 dated 28 November 2017

Geneva, 27 Nov (Kanaga Raja) - The cost of importing food globally is set to reach USD 1.413 trillion in 2017, representing a 6 percent or USD 86 billion rise from last year, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has reported.

In its latest Food Outlook report released this month, the FAO said that sharp increases in freight rates, stronger import demand and firmer prices of most food commodities are expected to elevate the global food import bill to its second highest level on record.

FAO said that of concern are the higher-than-average increases in the food import bills of many economically vulnerable nations.

"Expenditures by least-developed countries (LDCs), low-income food deficit countries (LIFDCs) and those geographically situated in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are set to climb considerably more than the global increase in 2017."

For instance, the projected year-on-year rise of 12 percent in the aggregate bill for LIFDCs is twice the world average, while for LDCs, the most vulnerable country group, the food import bill could soar by 10 percent from 2016.

According to the FAO report, rising and volatile freight rates were a prominent feature in 2016 and also have been a characteristic over much of 2017, as evidenced by movements in the Baltic Dry Index that show average shipping charges in the ten months to October 2017 almost twice as high as in the corresponding period of last year.

"Taking wheat originating from the US Gulf ports as an example, major Asian buyers have now to pay as much as USD 45 per tonne to take delivery of the grain, which is USD 12 or 36 percent more than what they paid last year."

At the product level, FAO said the import bills to undergo the largest absolute year-on-year increase are those for livestock commodities and for cereals.

At the forefront, the expected rise in global dairy import bill from last year amounts to some USD 38 billion, or 51 percent, on the back of record global demand and considerably higher unit costs.

The world dairy bill could approach USD 112 billion in 2017. For similar reasons, the meat import bill looks set to reach an all-time high of USD 176 billion, up 22 percent from 2016.

Stronger international demand in 2017 for maize is expected to drive up global expenditures on cereal imports by USD 25 billion to nearly USD 180 billion, said FAO.

The combination of higher volumes, higher benchmark prices and higher freights is also generally behind greater year-on-year bills for all other imported food categories, except for sugar, it added.

International purchases of the commodity are expected to decline this year and sugar prices to remain below the level of 2016. But the hike in shipping costs is likely to have an offsetting effect, with the overall sugar bill rising from last year, albeit modestly.

Cereal staples dominate imported foodstuffs for economically vulnerable countries. Improved domestic cereal production prospects, leading to lower purchases on the international marketplace, have not been sufficient to curb the strong growth in cereal import bills in 2017, as higher unit costs have driven up expenditures.

However, the US dollar - the currency in which most transactions are priced - has weakened considerably in 2017, said FAO.

This ought to have given some respite to the cost of procuring from international markets for those countries that saw their currency appreciate; but, this has not been the case for several large LIFDCs, it noted.

It said after reaching a 15-year high at the end of 2016, the US dollar has fallen considerably relative to major currencies, with the inflation-adjusted index dipping below 100 points in September and October 2017 for the first time in 34 months.

While providing respite to the cost of importing, as most international transactions are priced in USD, numerous major food importing LIFDCs (those buying more than USD 1 billion worth of food annually from international markets), however, have seen their currency slide against the US dollar.

Many of them, especially those situated in Africa, have experienced depreciation exceeding double-digit levels in percentage terms, FAO underlined.


The FAO biannual report on global food markets also highlighted trends in the markets of key food commodities such as cereals, coarse grains, rice, meat and diary products, and fish and fishery products.

According to FAO, world cereal markets are likely to be comfortably balanced in 2017/18, with total supplies exceeding projected demand and inventories on the rise.

Global cereal production in 2017 is forecast to surpass the 2016 peak by a small margin. Total production of coarse grains is set to reach a new record, with most of the expansion taking place in South America and Southern Africa.

However, wheat production is forecast to decline slightly from last year in spite of an upward adjustment since October driven by a larger-than-earlier anticipated harvest in the Russian Federation.

"The decline in wheat production from 2016 mostly reflects a lower harvest in the United States, as well as a projected fall in Australia's wheat crop after a record output in 2016."

Even though world wheat production in 2017 is forecast to fall below last year's record level, wheat supplies in 2017/18 remain relatively large. Stocks are set to increase for the fifth consecutive season, reaching an all-time high.

Trade is expected to contract, while prices, which still exceed last year's levels, have remained under general downward pressure since the start of the season.

Global wheat production in 2017 is forecast at 752.8 million tonnes, down slightly from 2016. Most of the decrease is associated with significant production cuts in the United States and Australia.

However, global output is still forecast to be the second highest on record. Global wheat trade is also seen to decline a slight 1.2 percent below the 2016/17 record level, amounting to 175.2 million tonnes.

FAO said that the forecast contraction in world trade in 2017/18 is largely the result of reduced import demand in Asia, more than offsetting higher expected imports by Europe and North America.

Inventories are forecast to increase further in 2017/18, boosted by large supplies in China. Global wheat stocks are forecast to reach 258 million tonnes by the close of seasons in 2018, an all-time high and 5 percent above their opening levels.

Overall, said FAO, the bulk of this season's projected expansion in world wheat reserves is expected to take place in China, where wheat inventories are forecast to increase by at least 18 million tonnes, or 20 percent, to around 110 million tonnes.

As for coarse grains, FAO reported that record production in 2017 amid a slow rising utilization is likely to contribute to a further expansion in world inventories.

FAO has forecasted global coarse grain production in 2017 to exceed the previous year. Most of the increase is associated with higher maize production in Southern Africa and South America, more than offsetting the expected reduction in the United States.

While feed demand for maize is expected to remain relatively firm, declines in feed use of barley and sorghum in China and the United States are seen to push down the year-on-year growth in total feed utilization. Industrial use of coarse grains is also expected to experience a below-average increase, largely because of a weaker intake of maize for production of biofuels.

Based on latest forecasts for global production and utilization, world stocks could rise to a new record level.

Maize and barley inventories are behind this projected rise, mostly in Brazil, South Africa and the United States, while sorghum stocks are heading for a decline, mostly in Argentina, Australia and China.

"Ample supplies in major exporting countries are forecast to drive up world trade volume slightly to nearly 184 million tonnes. Bigger maize exports account for most of the overall increase."

Among the world's leading maize exporters, the biggest year-on-year rise in exports is forecast for Brazil, more than offsetting an equally significant fall in shipments by the United States.

Large export supplies in South America have, in fact, contributed not only to weaker prices but, even more importantly, to lower price volatility so far this season.

As for rice, FAO said global production prospects were marred by a series of climatic setbacks affecting main- crops in the Northern Hemisphere during the critical summer months.

"Although strong production incentives in Asia and Africa permitted plantings to remain largely unaffected, the weather disruptions are now anticipated to limit world rice production growth in 2017, keeping output marginally below the 2016 record outcome of 501 million tonnes (milled basis)."

International trade in rice is forecast to expand by 1 percent in 2018 to reach 45.4 million tonnes, underpinned by larger Asian purchases, namely by Indonesia, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. Import demand is forecast to be less lively elsewhere, limited by larger local availabilities and higher international prices.

According to FAO, among exporters, India and Thailand are expected to retain their positions as the top global rice suppliers, although tighter availabilities could undermine their ability to compete.

Despite expectations of stagnating output this season, global rice supplies are still predicted to exceed utilization, enabling a small (0.4 percent) expansion in world rice inventories at the close of the 2017/18 marketing years to 169.2 million tonnes.

Continued accumulations in China are anticipated to sustain this increase, while draw-downs in Thailand and the United States could drive a 9 percent contraction in the stocks of the major exporting countries to a ten-year low.

After stagnating in 2016, world meat production is forecast to recover in 2017, increasing by 1.1 percent, or 3.5 million tonnes, to 324.8 million tonnes, amid moderate increases in bovine, pig and poultry meats and a modest gain in ovine meat (lamb and mutton).

FAO said that much of the global meat output expansion is forecast to originate in the United States, Brazil, the Russian Federation, Mexico and India, but also in Argentina, Turkey and Thailand.

After two years of downsizing associated with an on-going process of farm re-structuring and consolidation, meat production in China, the world's largest meat producer, is expected to remain stable around the 2016 level, as expansions in ovine, pig and bovine meats are anticipated to compensate for a marked decline in poultry meat, constrained mainly by the spread of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

World trade in meat is forecast to reach 31.5 million tonnes in 2017, 1.2 percent above last year, but the growth is slower than the 4.4 percent registered in 2016.

World trade in bovine meat is expected to record the fastest expansion, followed by poultry, while pigmeat and ovine meat trade may fall somewhat, said FAO.

On the demand side, Japan, Angola, Cuba and Mexico, as well as the Republic of Korea, Iraq, Chile, the United Arab Emirates and Viet Nam are all expected to step up imports.

By contrast, meat imports by China, the EU, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Canada may decline, in some cases a reflection of larger domestic supplies and, in others, of falling demand in the wake of relatively high international prices.

Among exporters, the United States, Thailand, India, Argentina, Ukraine and Brazil are all anticipated to step up meat exports in 2017, while the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Paraguay and Chile may see theirs fall.

"The spread of the HPAI is expected to affect the direction and pace of poultry meat production and trade across different regions," said FAO.

World milk production is set to reach 833.5 million tonnes in 2017, 1.4 percent more than in 2016. Much of the anticipated rise is expected in Asia and the Americas, while the sector might stagnate in Europe and Africa and possibly face a decline in Oceania.

Despite slow growth in milk production, the EU is anticipated to account for the largest export expansion, under-pinned by increased sales of cheese and skim milk powder (SMP).

Likewise, greater shipments of cheese, but also of SMP, are expected to boost exports from the United States. In contrast, exports from South America, Oceania, Asia and Africa are forecast to decline in 2017, largely reflecting supply constraints.

On the demand side, Asia is anticipated to drive the expansion, with imports by the region predicted at around 41 million tonnes, 1.5 percent more than in 2016.

Within Asia, China is behind much of that expected increase, with its purchases fuelled by demand for higher value-added dairy products, in particular cheese and SMP.

Global production of fish and fishery products is expected to expand by 2.3 percent in 2017, a faster growth rate than last year, primarily accounted for by a recovery in catches of anchoveta in South America and by a further expansion of aquaculture production, which continues to rise at some 4-5 percent a year.

The aquaculture sector is estimated to be the world's primary source of fish for all purposes within 5 years, said FAO.

"Although the large established markets of the United States of America, the EU and Japan still account for a substantial proportion of seafood imports, it is demand growth in Asia, and particularly China, that will be the most important single factor in shaping the global seafood market for the foreseeable future."

Growth in tropical fruit trade has outpaced that of most other food commodities, said FAO. According to FAO, export volumes of mango, pineapple, avocado and papayas are on course to achieve a total combined value of USD 10 billion in 2017.

Total production of these four tropical fruits is estimated to reach 92 million tonnes this year, compared to 69 million tonnes in 2008, it said.

According to FAO, currently, 95 percent of that output is consumed locally, but rising incomes and changing consumer preferences will likely boost export volumes, especially if freer trade and better market access stimulates further technological gains in distribution.

Major producers of tropical fruits include India, home to around 40 percent of global mango production, Costa Rica, which supplies a large share of the world's pineapples, China and Brazil, and also Mexico, which is the largest exporter, said FAO.