International food prices fell sharply in December. However, a U.N. agency says overall prices remained high in 2011. The Food and Agriculture Organization also says that price trends are uncertain for 2012.
FAO Senior Grains Economist Abdolreza Abbassian said the Food Price Index fell nearly two and a half percent from November.
"Well, December was simply a continuation of the downward trend that we've been witnessing for the last, let's say, 5 or 6 months, which was in reaction to production numbers being revised up quite, I would say, significantly, the recession fears and a slowdown in the global economy and the strengthening of the dollar. So, I think those three factors weighed quite heavily on international prices," he said.
The FAO Food Price Index measures 55 commodities on the international market. Abbassian said the decline in prices last month should not simply be taken at face value.
"If you're a consumer or an importing country, obviously, any decline in price is a welcome development. But we need to put this in perspective. Put this in perspective means that a lot of the poorer countries or developing countries would have to pay for the food imports with (the) U.S. dollar. And (the) U.S. dollar had appreciated quite a bit depending of course against which currency and which country. But in general terms it's been strengthening. And this to some extent could unfortunately offset any gain received from paying lower prices," he said.
Declines were led by lower prices for cereals, sugar and oils due, in part, to bumper crops in 2011. But Abbassian said those declines were generally modest, despite December's figures. Average prices for the year were actually higher than 2008 during the food crisis – and the highest since 1990 when the Food Price Index began, once adjusted for inflation.
"Any decline," he said, "is good from that perspective. One has to be a bit careful about celebrating it. You know it's not going to have such a significant impact unfortunately in terms of helping these countries to cope with the high food prices, especially at the time when (there are) a lot of uncertainties in the fuel market. A lot of these countries also are also big importers of energy and fuels."
So what do 2011 prices mean for 2012? The FAO economist won't make any official prediction.
"I wish I could. It is one thing we have learned (the) hard way is that especially with the food index, which has 55 commodities inside it, and given especially what's happening and what we're hearing every day about the world market and the different uncertainties, it is really next to impossible," he said.
He says his personal view is that there will not be significant declines in food prices this year. He says more will be known in March and April when food production forecasts are made. Abbassian does say, though, that he does not foresee a repeat of the turmoil of the 2007/2008 food crisis.