On droughts

1. The drought has missed the corn belt, but the heat waves haven't (making Michael Roberts bullish on food prices).

2. You know a drought is bad when the camels are dying.
Ahmed Mohammad, a Somali camel herdsman, told BBC: "It is a terrible sign when camels start dying because when they start to die, then what chance have sheep, goats and cattle?"

Tyler Cowen's next book on food!

I saw Tyler Cowen live in DC tonight - a fun experience for those of you who are familiar with his written word. Most of the discussion focused on The Great Stagnation (a.k.a. TGS), but an exciting tidbit was that his next book will be on food and food economics. Especially given that agriculture recently surpassed climate change as my most-posted-on topic, I for one can't wait.

Volatility cuts both ways

Lest we be lulled into the assumption that commodity prices are on a one-way trip to infinity:
In just the last couple weeks corn prices have fallen from nearly $8/bushel to about $6.15. All of that is due to a rather small amount of information about the progress of this year's crop. Yes, there were reports of flooding and late plantings, but that kind of thing rarely has much effect on the overall crop production. The late plantings just set up even more volatility going forward, since the plants will be susceptible to extreme heat in July and August.
That's Michael Roberts, who concludes that
this volatility does provide a teachable moment: it shows how sensitive prices are to small quantity changes.
True, but I think we are collectively more attuned to the downside factors (climate change, growing demand) than the potential upsides (e.g., a sudden removal of biofuels mandates, or a restoration over several years of typical buffer stock levels). A 25% fall in a matter of weeks is huge, and a reminder that high food prices and food price volatility are not the same thing (a huge pet peeve of mine).

This can also be true for seemingly exhaustible physical resources, as yesterday's announced discovery of "vast deposits of rare earth metals" on small plots of Pacific Ocean seabed show us.
estimated rare earths contained in the deposits amounted to 80 to 100 billion metric tons, compared to global reserves currently confirmed by the U.S. Geological Survey of just 110 million tonnes that have been found mainly in China, Russia and other former Soviet countries, and the United States.
(don't sleep on the B vs. M - that is 800-1,000x current confirmed reserves)

I am pondering a longer post on what this means for commodities as an asset class (namely that over decades, they will not provide attractive real returns, although they may have some value as a hedge against inflation).

Third largest ag exporter is... the Netherlands?

Take the case of the Netherlands. Unbeknown to most people, it is world’s third largest agricultural exporter, despite having little land (it has the world’s fifth highest population density). This has been possible because the Dutch have “industrialised” agriculture by, for example, deploying hydroponic agriculture (growing plants in water) that uses computer-controlled feeding of high-quality chemicals—something that would not have been possible if the Netherlands did not have some of the world’s most advanced chemical and electronics industries.
Via Chang via Yglesias via MR. Note that the data is from 2003-2004 (I was suspicious because Brazil didn't breach the top ten). But nevertheless an impressive feat. Although it's worth mentioning that a large $ trade surplus in agriculture is not the same thing as being self-sufficient - the Netherlands is as exposed to rising staple crop prices as any other country (albeit with a high level of income, so consumers don't feel the hurt nearly as much).