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noun [uncountable]

an increase in the price of agricultural food products caused by increased demand, especially as a result of the use of these products in alternative energy sources



'Global food prices will continue to soar for the next two years, producers and analysts warned yesterday … The nation's farmers and manufacturers, in Edinburgh for the Royal Highland Show, told The Scotsman they could see no chance of agflation easing in the near future.'

The Scotsman 20th June 2008

'But the agflationary forces that have been pushing grain prices to record levels are at work on cotton, and prices are looking good …'

The Australian 19th January 2008

for the first time in generations, the price of food has recently become a newsworthy issue, with talk of significant increases in the cost of basic commodities such as milk and bread

Ever looked in your breakfast bowl or munched on a slice of toast and thought about how much it cost? For the richer, developed nations, it seems a long time since the price of everyday food was a source of concern. The fact is, our food has become progressively cheaper over the last few decades, and today the proportion of income spent on food is a fraction of what it was in the post-war period. Yet, for the first time in generations, the price of food has recently become a newsworthy issue, with talk of significant increases in the cost of basic commodities such as milk and bread. Though the effects are currently fairly subtle, we could face the prospect of a major change in the prices displayed on supermarket shelves. And discussing the reasons for this has given birth to a new word – agflation.

Agflation is a rise in the price of agricultural food products, caused by a significant increase in demand. Underlying this increased demand is not merely human consumption, but issues surrounding the diversion of crops for use in alternative energy resources (e.g. so-called biofuels, which can be produced from cereal or sugar crops, or crops naturally rich in palm or soya bean oils).

Following the derivational pattern of inflation and its related adjective inflationary, agflation has morphed into an adjective agflationary, so we can talk about agflationary trends etc.

Agflationary prices are alleged to be the result of four key trends: population growth, use of crops for fuel rather than food, the 'westernisation' of Asian diets (e.g. growing affluence in China and India has created an increased demand for meat), and a diminishing area of farming land caused by urbanisation and climate change. It has been suggested that we may be reaching a situation of peak food (compare peak oil, which refers to a point in time when the maximum rate of global fuel extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline).

In a related context, people often talk about the food versus fuel debate. This refers to the interplay of issues such as escalating corn prices, diminishing grain reserves, and the EU requirement that biofuels account for 20% of the energy mix. The challenge of balancing future demand for both food and energy in an eco-positive way means that the food versus fuel debate will become increasingly significant, and reflects a climate in which agflation seems likely to gain currency.

Background – agflation

The term agflation first appeared in 2007, a blend of agriculture and inflation. It follows the creative example of the expression stagflation – a combination of stagnant and inflation – which refers to an economy suffering from stagnant economic growth while inflation continues to rise. Stagflation was coined back in the 1960s, but has recently emerged from obscurity, enjoying a renaissance in the media in the context of an unhealthy economic climate. On the same theme, another lexical variation is slugflation, a blend of sluggish and inflation referring to a period of sluggish (i.e. slow) economic growth and rising inflation.

Another expression popping up very regularly in recent British English is credit crunch, featuring almost daily in media coverage of the ailing economy. This expression refers to a situation in which the amount of available credit in an economy is restricted, because loans are either less easily available or much more expensive, which slows down economic activity.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 15th September 2008.

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