Why chickpea shortages are a bad omen for global grain supplies

War is leaving thousands of tons of grains stuck in Ukraine and Russia and weather is impacting crops yields around the world. The latest casualty is the chickpea. It won’t be the last

Since the start of the pandemic, we have heard about shortages countless times. For one reason or another, most sections of the grocery store have been hit by tightening supplies. But the latest headlines are about chickpeas.

For westerners, chickpeas are mostly associated with hummus, an increasingly popular source of fibre for curious consumers wanting to experiment with new ingredients and dishes. But with many analysts expecting inventories to drop significantly in months to come, a looming chickpea shortage is likely on the way. In North America, for example, prices have already increased 12% from last year, according to NielsenIQ.

Chickpeas are a cheap and efficient source of plant protein; a nutritional powerhouse for consumers who don’t necessarily opt for animal proteins regularly or can’t afford them. They are naturally low in sodium and sugar and are cholesterol free. For people living with celiac disease who need gluten-free products, chickpeas are a godsend. Other than hummus, they might also be popped and eaten like popcorn, ground into flour and used in many vegetable-protein-based products we find at the grocery store and are commonly used in soups, stews and chilis.

According to Reuters, chickpea crop yields are expected to drop as much as 20% this year due to inclement weather in many parts of the world. India is the largest producer globally, followed by Turkey and, of course, Russia. Canada is ninth and most of our production is for export markets.

Canada’s seeded areas for chickpeas dropped this year, going from 185,500 acres last year to 177,800 — prices for other commodities were more interesting for farmers. The same thing happened in the U.S.  Russia and Ukraine are usually the top exporters, but not this year. Ukraine is short at least 50,000 tons, which would normally end up in the European market, while Russia is impacted by trade sanctions resulting from the invasion of Ukraine.

Last week though, the world received some good news. Well, sort of.

Ukraine and Russia finally signed a deal in Turkey committing to let tons of vital grain supplies ship from long-blockaded southern ports in Ukraine. Some of the grains stuck at ports are wheat, barley, and, of course, chickpeas. But the port of Odessa was bombed just 24 hours after the deal was struck. Russia’s track record in easing commodity pressures is not reassuring. There is still hope, but it’s a bit of a wait-and-see scenario. If executed, a food security crisis won’t be averted in parts of the world, including North-East Africa and the Middle East, but it will lessen the blow in many regions.

For the West, commodity prices have been dropping steadily since May. Wheat prices have gone from a record $13.38 on May 17 to under $8 a bushel. Corn, canola, sunflower oil, rice and soybeans are all much cheaper than just a few weeks ago. The Ukraine-Russia grain deal is helping, but prices would still be lower regardless. Procuring ingredients for food manufacturers is getting less expensive by the day, which helps our food inflation situation.

In other words, looming deficits are baked into commodity prices already and buyers have bought what they need for the fall, albeit at a premium. But, at least, they have some ingredients for their customers. The commodity supercycle appears to be over, thank goodness. Market conditions are much more predictable, which helps companies plan and anticipate demand. This will likely benefit us all as consumers.

As our agricultural production in North America and Europe concludes in the weeks to come, we should expect to see more reports of grain shortages. So, we need to brace ourselves. Mustard and sunflower seeds have already been targeted by previous reports. Chickpeas is just the latest one. North America won’t be short of anything as it can buy itself out of a food-security pickle. But other poorer regions won’t have as much luck. We are starting to see signs of civil unrest in many regions of the world. While our food inflation situation is calming down here at home, the worst is yet to come for many other parts of the globe.

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