World's cupboards bare as crop fails

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The Independent Online
Unnoticed by Western consumers, the world is passing through its worst period of grain scarcity since the early 1970s. Prices of internationally traded wheat have doubled in one year, grain mountains have vanished and stocks are low.

Hopes that the world food crisis might ease were dashed yesterday after the US announced that the American winter-wheat harvest this summer would be the worst in almost two decades.

Yesterday's official forecast of the lowest US harvest in 18 years means the risk of worsening hunger, hardship and turmoil in grain-importing poor countries will stay high for at least another year.

The harvest, which begins in Texas this month, is the largest of any region in the world. The US is also the world's biggest wheat exporter and winter-sown varieties account for 60 per cent of the crop.

Drought last autumn, late frosts and high winds meant an even more disappointing crop than last year's poor one, said the Department of Agriculture. As stocks dwindled, the main index price of US wheat has doubled over the past year, rising to a peak of pounds 195 a tonne at the end of last month.

"After this disappointing harvest they're not likely to come down," said Richard Woodham, of the London-based International Grains Council.

Powerful trends have combined to slash the vast grain exports to the developing world from developed countries, chiefly the US, Canada, the European Union and Australia, after years of crop surpluses.

Cash support to farmers has been cut to curb the grain mountains, because of the high cost to taxpayers and consumers. But developing countries, especially China, have needed to import more, because of population growth and prosperity. A succession of poor harvests was the final factor in turning abundance into scarcity.

There are 82 poor nations, half of them in Africa, which import more food than they export. High prices, which flow from the bad US harvest, will hit them hard.

Spectre of drought, page 8