By Jennifer Yousfi
Tighter credit for farmers could worsen a global food crisis as smaller crop sizes cause prices to soar.
Many farmers have traditionally bought pre-season supplies such as seeds and fertilizer on credit and then paid off the debt with the proceeds from the year's harvest. But with a growing number of farmers unable to obtain the credit they need, crop yields will suffer.
Global wheat production will likely be 4.4% less next year, Dan Basse, president of AgResource Co. in Chicago, told Bloomberg News. Basse believes the world's corn and soybean crops will also see declines.
"The credit situation is worrying even the biggest and best farmers," Brian Willot, a former University of Missouri commodity analyst who now grows soybeans in Brazil, told Bloomberg. "For the financially weak, credit has dried up completely. For the strong, credit has been delayed and interest rates are higher."
The risk-aversion of Wall Street is spreading out into other industries, as the main sources of lending for farmers - rural independent banks and crop processors such as Cargill Inc. and Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) - tighten credit requirements by charging higher interest, demanding more collateral or in some cases, discontinue lending completely.
"We certainly could see tight credit having an effect on agricultural production," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said earlier this month. "The costs of farming operations today are huge, and that backs up to the banks that have balance sheets that are tight, it backs up to elevators that have credit stretched out."
Worse, drops in agriculture yields could be devastating to more than just the agriculture industry.
"Stockpiles are going to be extremely tight," AgResource's Basse told Bloomberg. "The world cannot afford any dislocation in production next year, or there will be a real shortage."
The United Nation's World Food Programme says the world is already gripped in a "silent tsunami" of hunger. And every drop in production pushes more of the world's hungry towards the brink of starvation.
"It is estimated that more than 100 million people in the world have been forced into poverty and hunger because of the dramatic increase in food prices," said Benjamin Senauer, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, author and researcher, MarketWatch reported. "Millions of American families' food budgets have been stretched to the limit and beyond. Food stamp enrollment is up and food banks are seeing unprecedented demand."
Smaller crops could mean higher prices at a time when consumers were just starting to see some slight signs of relief in the grocery store checkout line.
The change in food and beverage prices, as tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor, had moderated slightly in August and September after the record-highs of the summer. But even off the summertime highs, the overall Consumer Price Index increased 4.9% for the 12 months ended September 2008. In the food and beverage category, the increase was 6.0% year-over-year.
Agriculture futures for corn, wheat and soybeans are trading lower from earlier 2008 highs, but a steep decline in crop yields could cause future prices to reverse course.