Guest Post: Food Prices & The Solar Cycle

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by John Aziz of Azizonomics

Food Prices & The Solar Cycle

From that sun which is truly ‘of this great world both eye and soul’ we derive our strength and our weakness, our success and our failure, our elation in commercial mania, and our despondency and ruin in commercial collapse.


W.S. Jevons, 1909

With crop yields falling due to drought, and crop prices breaking out so much that some farmers are feeding their cows discarded candy, perhaps now is a good time to consider the slightly offbeat theories of English economist W.S. Jevons who believed that the business cycle is driven by the 11-year solar cycle:

W.S. Jevons and then his son H. S. Jevons believed that cyclical behaviour of solar activity cause changes in agricultural output and therefore general economic activity. This has been named the “sunspot” theory. Although sometimes regarded as bordering on the bizarre, it is not too farfetched. Non-irrigated agrarian societies obviously would suffer pronounced effects upon agricultural production (and therefore incomes) from climatic alterations. It follows that relative large variations in agricultural production would lead to variations in supporting industries (forward linkages) and then impacts upon industrial output which use raw materials from agriculture (backward linkages) and eventually overall economic activity.

Jevons backed his claims up with data:

Jevons finds that the prices of most agricultural products vary dramatically over an eleven year cycle. He cites English agricultural price data from the years 1259-1400. The prices of wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas, and rye reach a relative minimum in the second year of the cycle, an absolute maximum in the fourth year of the cycle and an absolute minimum in the tenth year of the cycle before recovering in the final year of the cycle and the first year of the new cycle. There does appear to be a rather obvious and consistent trend in prices over these eleven year periods. Jevons finds that the data (English wheat prices from 1595-1761) available to him in the Wealth of Nations (Smith, 1776) confirm similar although less marked trends in agricultural prices. Jevons does not discount other significant factors that might cause the rather predictable nature of these business cycles. Technological advancements, wars, and other factors independent of agricultural and weather cycles can and do exhibit great influence over the economic well being of a nation. Also consumer confidence or a lack thereof could cause significant variations in spending and employment. However, Jevons believes that these consumer attitudes may also be related to the sunspot theory and the corresponding droughts and bumper crops which may result. “If, then the English money market is naturally fitted to swing or roll in periods of ten or eleven years, comparatively slight variations in the goodness of harvests repeated at like intervals would suffice to produce those alterations of depression, activity, excitement and collapse which undoubtedly recur in well-marked succession.”

As Jevons alludes to — and especially in a world where most of us live in an irrigated industrial society — it would seem that there are many other significant factors in determining both long and short term variations in food price — technology shocks, wars, energy shocks, social changes. Food prices are a complex and multi-dimensional equation with a lot of variables.

But the impressive thing is that even in a modern agriculturally mechanised and industrialised economy there remains a discernable underlying association between food prices and the solar cycle:

Some might assume that this relationship is transmitted via precipitation, and that less rain (i.e. more drought) means less food growth, and therefore higher food costs. But this could work the other way, too — too much rain can also damage crops.

And the evidence suggests that more precipitation is associated with higher food inflation, and vice verse:

There is a much looser relationship with temperature:

So while Jevons was correct that there is an underlying association, there is clearly a lot more to it than the solar cycle especially in the irrigated, mechanised, fertilised modern agricultural world. Certainly, it does not seem possible to predict food price changes based solely on the solar cycle, even though it does appear to exert a significant influence.

And certainly we have passed through much higher periods of solar activity and drought without such an extreme breakout in corn (or soy) prices:

That chart, more than anything else suggests that the recent corn and soy breakout is terrestrial rather than solar in nature. The chief culprit remains growing ethanol usage:


As well as growing global corn-fed meat consumption:

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Michael's picture

Sun going back to sleep of late. 2012 is solar max year too. The eco-fascists need to learn a lesson they will never forget. Thank you Creator.

WhiteNight123129's picture

Well, well, well, I suggest you read the 1838 book from Thomas Tooke about the crops level between 1694 and 1702 (which was a particularly severe decline in sunspots) also the same Thomas Tooke about crops during the Dalton low at the beginning of hte XIX century. Not pretty...


ACP's picture

Also a positive correlation between solar storm activity and stock market volatility.

Not to mention:

Vint Slugs's picture

John A,

Maybe you can next compare the sunspot cycles with mean temperatures and thus enlighten the great unwashed about global warming.

Fish Gone Bad's picture

I am still not convinced people (puppeteers or puppets), actually want to be enlightened.  Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy, and all Christianity pretty much proves that.  As long as there is money to be made, and leaders who allow it, it will go on.

exi1ed0ne's picture

Death: Humans need fantasy to *be* human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers?
Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
Susan: So we can believe the big ones?
Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing.
Susan: They're not the same at all.
Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged.
Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what's the point?
Death: You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?

dunce's picture

Heresy, blasphemy, denier! How dare you suggest that the sun has any influence on weather patterns? Nazis, facists, whippersnappers, the sky is falling. Go long on marijuana.

Doode's picture

Crap - where is the statistical analysis. Put some t-values otherwise looks like a complete ema crossover junk.


Aziz's picture

Did a t-test on Food Prices vs Sunspots post-1950 (i.e. the era of mechanized agriculture) yielding t-value of 6.9, i.e. statistically significant.

So there you go.

Doode's picture

great - what is the coef and R2 then?

Aziz's picture

r and r^2 are to do with absolute price level relative to absolute sunspot level. There ain't much absolute correlation there at all. You're not going to be able to predict much from the solar cycle than the fact that the solar cycle will often pull the price up or down a little from the pre-existing levels. I never said or suggested there was a strong absolute correlation, just that the underlying cycle is an influence. But for the sake of intellectual honesty:


r^2= 0.04981


Doode's picture

Those numbers suggest that the "influence" is a stretch hardly worth speaking of. At 5% r2 it is worse than past returns predicting future market returns - which is like 20% for 5 years ahead.

Canucklehead's picture

I don't know if you realize it but there is seasonality in weather, usually related to variations in solar energy reaching the earth.  Generally speaking, in the winter months the temperature is lower than that found during the summer months.  Use you math skills.  You will find a correlation there.

Math is nice when trying to pick out a tree.  Can you see the forest or do you only see trees?

...the sun wobbles... that is variability.

johnQpublic's picture

i thought we had winter because that was when there was more co2 in the air or sumthin


agw concept fail

machineh's picture

r and r^2 are to do with absolute price level relative to absolute sunspot level. 

Nothing prevents you from taking first differences -- as is commonly done with financial time series -- and computing the correlation between sunspot changes and food price changes.

But either way, absolute or first differences, the correlations are too weak to have any statistical significance.

vintageyz's picture

Piers Corbyn.  His theories include solar activity.  Plus, some very accurate weather forecasts.

Dr. Engali's picture

The very idea that we are burning food in our gas tanks is ridiculous. The idea that a deranged policy like this can stay in place is beyond me.

Daily Bail's picture

Exactly.  And it's disconcerting to say the least that in this Summer of intense drought and spiking corn prices, we can't even get Congress to consider a temporary moratorium on ethanol mandates.

Not even for 1 flipping year.  Bought and paid for congressional bullshit and no one cares outside of the alternative economic blogoshpere we all inhabit.

Dr. Engali's picture

I think maybe 1 out of 100 people can put grasp in their heads that maybe burning food for fuel is a bad idea all around.

Aziz's picture

It's totally ludicrous.

falak pema's picture

I worked in recycling plastics for ten-fifteen years. There is a whole continent of that in the pacific and atlantic and the US does not recycle much of; it just dumps it, alike the UK. This waste society is a cancer. 

Always knew that waste in our society is a source of wealth. I made it work too.

As for using food for energy the cancer grows; that's all it conveys to me. All the more so that the Brazil sugar cane model, bad as it is, is better than the US corn one from EROEI perspective. 

We are standing on our heads. We should use fossils, flared/fracked NG,  to make petrochemicals, and solar/wind to replace fossils. All the while converting coal to Liquids or gas.   

Viva SA/Venezuela, comes to mind. Lets hope the latter can develop the Orenoco better in EROEI and ecological terms than Canada and tar sands! 

johnQpublic's picture

since i like to drink water, i say we shouldnt frack shit ever..ever


does converting coal to liquid release as much mercury into the air as burning it?

serious question

falak pema's picture

nope, the presence of heavy metals contaminants is solved in the chemical transformation process. Not only metals, sulphur, Nox, particulates etc. etc. etc.

Seer's picture

I've battled against ethanol for years.

Here's how to make blood boil:

Appeals court rejects challenge on ethanol Appeals court rejects trade groups' challenge to EPA rulings allowing ethanol increase

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A federal appeals court has rejected a challenge to Environmental Protection Agency decisions allowing an increase in ethanol content in gasoline.

In a 2-1 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said trade associations of engine manufacturers, food producers and petroleum producers did not have standing to sue because they failed to show that their members are harmed by the EPA action.

Full article:

You know, I don't much care for the groups who brought up this challenge, but I sure as hell am NOT siding with the EPA! (and, I very much doubt that real environmentalists are siding with them either)

juangrande's picture

That shit they grow is not food! Now the very idea that aerable land is wasted growing what they grow for whatever reason is beyond me! Oh wait, there's money to be had....

buzzsaw99's picture

seven years of feast, seven of famine. it has been going on since the dawn of time.

Seer's picture

No, only since "recorded" time.  During glacial periods the interval of famine was likely a bit longer than seven years: OK, perhaps not for the hunter-gatherers, but anyone attempting to establish on-going domesticated agriculture, yes.

CharliePrince's picture

next spring is the solar peak....pretty sure

Rudolph Steiner's picture

Yes, maximum predictions for Solar Cycle 24 Max are March-May 2013.

Plumplechook's picture

What a steaming pile of shit.   When are the Tylers going to stop publishing every brain-fart by this clown Aziz?

Dr. Engali's picture

If you don't like him don't read him. I don't read Charles Hugh Smith or Simon Black , but others do. I feel they are a waste of my time ( I do like to read the comments though).But I also don't bitch about them being published, I enjoy the fact Tyler posts a variety of reading material.

NidStyles's picture

This is ZH, not If you don't like the article, don't read it. Keep your opinions in that slimy brain of your's.

plata pura's picture

damn fine post. double bogey coming with the precession and fourth turning;; on a good note' living healthy soil produces more yield than that of man made fertilizers in drought. it also sequesters massive amounts of carbon. long compost tea 

adr's picture

If you take a look at corn prices prior to 1970 they traded in a very narrow range compared to the last few decades.

Then the price really got out of hand after 2000.

Perhaps the out of control prices have something to do with investors who wouldn't have the slightest idea to do with a bushel of corn if it showed up on their doorstep.

The first event that drove global commodities higher was going off the gold standard, the second was the commodity futures moderization act.

The price of corn should have gone up this yar, but not to the extreme it did. Too many momo traders trying to frontrun the others, the result is insanity that will drivethe world further ino a depression it may never recover from.

Disenchanted's picture



"Perhaps the out of control prices have something to do with investors who wouldn't have the slightest idea to do with a bushel of corn if it showed up on their doorstep."


The financialization of everything...F.I.R.E. economies, have anything to do with it you think??

Seer's picture

During the Nixon era the policy, as advocated by then Sec of Ag Earl Butz (sp?) was to "get big or get out."

How many more examples of BIG = FAIL! are needed before we make the connection?

Joe A's picture

Interesting. Other charts show that there is a correlation between sunspots and global temperatures.  The sunspot-food prices chart above shows that in some years the correlation is more profound than in other years. Why? The author states that too much precipitation also causes damages to crops (duh). Long term climate is just hard to predict. One disturbance somewhere can mess up understood climate patterns.

Point is that at the end of the 20th century the correlation is really getting off. What is the cause: AGW or AG-food-speculation or AG-using-food-for-fuel? Or a bit of all? Climate is more complicated than we think and for me it seems there is not one particular causes but a set of causes to climate and weather events. But using food for fuel is just insane.

Joe A's picture

Burning of organic waste or municipal waste is an option but with some pollution aspects although the wikipedia article says that problem is minimal. Ethanol from biomass is also an option. But nature also needs biomass for nutrient cycling so taking too much out is not a good idea. Question also is if there is enough biomass for it to become a viable fuel to fuel the world. The world needs to move away from a carbon based energy source. Until the world has mastered nuclear fusion or has created the hydrogen economy, there will be a basket of 'alternative' energies.

Seer's picture

What the hell is "waste?"

WVO (Waste Veggie Oil) was once waste and then it came under lock and key and people ended up having to pay for it.  Hint: it became NOT a waste, but a product.

The height of this insanity was a proposal in SF of people depositing doggie doo in special containers to be picked up and then processed for energy.  How much fucking energy is going into the management/collection/processing/distribution (of end product [pardon the pun])?  Yeah, the "solution" is for everyone to get pets and go out walking them...

It's not that it's a bad idea to reclaim stuff.  What's bad is HOW it is done.  And usually the energy equation goes bad when you start moving stuff: keep it on the farm!

It's instructive to learn about how stir-fry came about and why it's so widely used in places like China.  It is a necessity because they apply "night soils" (human feces and urine) directly on their crops (in many places, though "modern" stuff like totally unsustainable chemical fertilizers are pushing out some of this practice).  Have to heat things up to kill bugs.


And just when you think you've got that input stream captured you'll find that it diminishes because the activities that create the waste are in less demand.  I think that a recent article showing the drop in garbage/trash shipping is telling on this point.

NOTE: garbage dumps will be the next resource mines... (I know that one day I'll regret cleaning up all the old dumps that predecessors left on my property, but I just can't stomach the shit now.)

CABill's picture

Usually well-intentioned environmentalism backfires and causes unforseen damage far greater than the original problem.  MTBE as a fuel oxidizer that poisoned groundwater, Ethanol that starved out animals and people, Ethanol that lowered ground water levels, removing wolves from Yellowstone, reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone, saving California delta smelt and drying up farms, the list goes on and on.  Humans can't think logically, and most especially those with an emotional agenda.

Joe A's picture

Compounded by the fac that some see a 'business opportunity' in everything, such as ethanol. It provides access to huge subsidies. Also take carbon emission trading. One country can buy emission rights from another country on the assumption that the latter country will invest in cleaner energies. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. The former country then washes his hands and does not have to tackle his own emission problem. These kind of constructions attract sharks. It will be a future bubble.

Environmentalism is not all bad. Many problems have been averted or solved but playing on an emotional agenda makes people make illogical decisions as you said.

Me_Myself_and_I's picture

People need better education about what kind of environmental science is appropriate to pursue, vs. flim-flam science.  Your example on MTBE is extremely relevant;  but most hippie-activists didn't bother to research it properly.  Had they done so they would have discovered the giant chemical industry apparatus behind the scam that cloaked their intentions in Green Sheep clothing. 

Ditto for Ethanol and the agri-business farm lobby, who gave politicians talking points they could sell to the left while cutting checks to the Big Biz folks who kicked back campaign contributions.

People need to stop believing in magic solutions and start delving into the heart of these problems, and work on real solutions that curb excessive consumptions and conserve real resources for future generations. 

Anything less is just a lame cop out. 

Aziz's picture

It seems to me like you read the charts without paying much heed to the words inbetween. The strongest thing I claim is a small but "discernable underlying association" (t-value of 6.94) between food inflation and solar cycle in the modern world. Obviously the total is a MUCH more multi-dimensional (nonlinear) equation. And I reject outright the premise that there is any association between solar cycles and corn, wheat and soy prices in the modern world. 

All I was doing was just examining Jevons' claim, and finding that there are a few points that translate to the modern world, but many which don't. The graphs that don't look very correlational aren't supposed to be correlational, because at the strongest I was showing a small underlying association, not any large correlation. I do not really agree much with Jevons.

Seer's picture

Know that environmentalists and ecologists are different.  The former is about preserving natural resources for future exploitation, the later is about preserving things that will preserve humans.

Environmentalists are no more than a different shade of exploiters.  You can beat them as you like, but they're just advocating a slower death march on the growth path.  Ethanol, as you bring up, IS a perfect example: and if you want to really scratch your head: (WARNING: contains a picture of a girl/woman with very large breasts!)  Ecologists would look to close down BIG ag farming (and likely condemn big city water use [people here don't really like big cities, right?]).

"saving California delta smelt and drying up farms"

Oh the irony in this.  CA (and other) farms are draining water at amazing rates.  And because of the mantra of growth it's not a matter of IF, but WHEN the fresh water sources dry up (just look at what's left of the Colorado River, and what's happened to the Ogallala aquifer), "delta smelt" or otherwise...  However, and because I don't stand on any one side of the boat, there are, as you note, some really stupid things done (I'm just one to point out such everywhere).

“Men argue…nature acts”

- Voltaire

Silly humans...

analyzer_66's picture

Coronal Mass Ejaculations BITCHEZ

Me_Myself_and_I's picture

What the hell is this crap?

I see no relationship in the presented series, just a bunch of lines that wander down the street like a couple of drunks in a fight with each other over a 40.

The proposed relationships are preposterously simplistic.  The interplay of weather, fiat, demand, agribusiness-petrochemicals, price of oil, etc. all have to be considered in a multivariate model, not a bunch of grade-school 2x2 plots. 

Jesus Christ.