Food

Of all the parabolic price charts that are lighting up Bloomberg terminals, the one to really give global policy makers the heebie-jeebies is, perhaps, the price of fertiliser. Up and up it goes, squeezing the already thin margins of put-upon famers. Populations can lean into higher fuel costs with a parka jacket and a bicycle, but if there is not enough food to go round, history suggests they take to the streets with wild eyes, wet lips, and placards. Lots and lots of placards. What matters for food production is fertilisers. You need fertilisers to grow food in enough quantities to feed a global population that is closing in on eight billion. Now the price of fertiliser has been forced up as the natural gas market has gone ballistic. You need natural gas to produce ammonia. You need ammonia to make fertiliser. You also need phosphate, and mining for phosphate requires things like diesel, which has also gone up a lot. And then, at the end of September, China announced that it is going to ban phosphate exports so that it has enough for its own domestic use, forcing those who had planned to buy from China frantically flicking through the Yellow Pages to find someone else to buy it from. If broken logistics networks and soaring labour costs weren’t enough, there is now a lot less supply. Hence the ripping price of global fertiliser and a lot of unhappy farmers. If higher food prices are coming down the pipe, it’s not just government that need to be on edge. Companies like US Foods, a supplier to three hundred thousand restaurants across the country, will also need to have plans in place to manage the squeeze. Fortunately US Foods can pass food costs straight through and, despite other challenges like the availability of truckers to shift produce from depot to diner, as Delta variant concerns ease the company remains poised for a sharp recovery in volumes. As data trends on OpenTable for countries that have opened show, there is huge pent-up appetite from consumers who are keen to ditch the boil-in-the-bag stroganoff and have their supper at a table they can walk away from when done. People like eating out. And after so many months of not being able to go out, the majority will more than likely be prepared to pay a little bit more to do so.