Soaring wheat prices are raising bread costs


Wheat prices have surged from the United States to Russia, hitting a record in Europe and raising bread costs all over the world. And there may not be much relief soon.

The crop—grown on more land than any other—was hit by droughts, frost and heavy rain this year in key exporters. That’s curbed supplies used in everything from pizza crusts and French baguettes to Asian noodles and African couscous, pushing benchmark prices in Chicago to an almost nine-year high.

That’s not just threatening higher grocery bills—it’s giving central banks a bigger inflation headache and risks worsening global hunger that’s already at a multiyear high. The worry is that big crops looming in Argentina and Australia won’t fully ease tight supply, and fields elsewhere are only just being planted.

“We could see further upside,” said Carlos Mera, head of agricultural commodities market research at Rabobank in London. “The higher the price goes, the more fear there is in the market and the more panic buying.”

Wheat in Chicago traded lower on Tuesday, after touching the highest since December 2012, while Paris futures reached a record 297 euros a ton before closing at 292.75 euros.

Here’s what’s driven the rally:

Dwindling stockpiles

While the world has a lot of wheat, much of that’s held in countries like China, which ships little abroad. Inventories in the top seven exporters —a better gauge of availability—are expected to sink to an eight-year low. Argentina and Australia just started harvesting, but it’ll take the better part of a year before Northern Hemisphere silos are replenished with the next crop.

Protectionist measures

Russia—last season’s top shipper—started taxing exports this year to safeguard supplies and keep domestic costs in check, and signaled an overseas sales quota is likely. That’s helped to slow shipments and support prices elsewhere, while giving rival suppliers the chance to grab more market share.

Import needs

Although top wheat buyer Egypt temporarily balked at high prices last month, appetite from importers remains strong, with Saudi Arabia booking more than double the expected amount in its latest tender. Countries typically stockpile several months of supply, but governments can’t risk running out before the next major harvests.

The rising prices are becoming a bigger challenge. Turkey’s president has blamed supermarket chains for a surge in food bills, Egypt is preparing to hike prices for the bread it subsidizes for its citizens and Tunisia doesn’t expect any relief in durum wheat costs until next year’s harvest.

Costlier fertilizer

While wheat’s rally is good news for farmers, their costs are going up too. Fertilizer prices are soaring from Europe to North America on production shortages, threatening to weigh on harvests next season.

Winter wheat makes up the bulk of supplies across the Northern Hemisphere, and while plantings are almost finished, farmers need to stock up on the nutrients now to boost yields and quality in the spring. French growers are already worried about fertilizer shortages.

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