The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) created a stir last October with its revised estimates of global hunger. After revising the methodology used in its annual State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) reports, the FAO reported that the number of hungry had not surpassed one billion following the 2008 food price spikes, as previously reported. Indeed, the new estimates showed barely an upward blip during the food price spikes. Moreover, new trend lines based on revised estimates of past hunger suggested significant progress in reducing the incidence of hunger.
“New estimates show that progress in reducing hunger during the past 20 years has been better than previously believed,” the FAO concluded, “and … given renewed efforts, it may be possible to reach the MDG hunger target [of halving world hunger] at the global level by 2015.”
Now, a group of hunger researchers led by Frances Moore Lappe, and including Triple Crisis bloggers Jennifer Clapp, Robin Broad, and Timothy A. Wise, have published a detailed critique of the SOFI 2012 estimates and report. “Framing Hunger: A Response to ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012,’” offers recommendations to the FAO, as much in relation to the presentation of its hunger estimates as on the methodology itself.
Derivative and insurance markets are implicated in the redistribution of wealth from agriculture to finance in at least two ways. First, derivatives—and some retail insurance products based on them (e.g. Brazilian CPR, micro crop and revenue insurance)—are increasingly marketed to farmers, traders and/or consumers as a means of reducing market and weather risks in agriculture (demand for such products has been catalyzed by the erosion of public arrangements to prevent and mitigate agricultural risk). To my mind, this arrangement in many cases resembles a case of unequal exchange. An hedging product of mediocre quality is being exchanged for a stream of fees and commissions to the financial sector. Indeed, hedging with commodity futures and options is a tricky proposition without guarantee of success. Contracts are too large and relatively short-term (relative the positions of many food system participants), trading and brokerage accounts are difficult, expensive and time-consuming to establish (especially for smaller traders), and future prices are both volatile and inefficient in many cases (this complicates derivatives trading by increasing the frequency of margin calls, as well as driving basis risk).
In fact, recent speculation in agricultural derivatives (more below) has introduced such inefficiency into future prices that hedgers have been petitioning regulators to introduce new limits on speculative trading. A 2008 letter from the Missouri Farm Board to the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) comments on rising basis risk for hedgers: “For almost three years farmers have experienced a widening of basis levels for most commodities…The lack of convergence between an expiring futures contract and the cash market has… presented major challenges to producers trying to carry out marketing plans involving futures and options contracts.” Even as speculators render cash prices more volatile, and effective risk management thus more essential, these same speculators are disabling one of the few price risk management options that remain for agricultural actors. I hear that sucking sound growing louder.
In my last post, I discussed the role of debt relationships and farmland acquisition in redistributing wealth from global agriculture to finance. This post discusses another mechanism for such injustice: commodity hoarding by financial firms. Over the last several years, as agricultural commodity prices rose, large financial institutions took the opportunity to speculate in both virtual commodities (via derivatives markets, to be addressed in part 3 of this post), and physical commodities. Speculating in physical commodities involves selectively storing and releasing food crops so as to profit from movements in price (and, sometimes to influence prices) over the time the crop is stored. Financial institutions factor into this dynamic in two ways: directly, as commodity hoarders; and, indirectly, as lenders to and shareholders in major global food trading companies that hoard commodities.
Despite reports that many prominent financial firms are exiting commodities markets (responding to public pressures to stop gambling on food, and higher regulatory costs), there is ample evidence to the contrary. Global metals markets illustrate some new, scary methods for institutional hoarding and spot market speculation, methods that are likely to be transferred to food commodities moving forward.
If you hear a kind of whooshing, rushing noise, don’t worry—it’s not US jobs moving to China. Today’s great sucking sound is the sound of agricultural wealth being siphoned off into the global financial system. Dragging poverty and insecurity in its wake, this broad movement of wealth from agriculture into finance is enriching and empowering finance capital at the expense of farmers, traders, consumers, rural communities and the earth. In fact, that sucking sound is really the sound of injustice.
Finance capital globally deploys a huge variety of methods and techniques that generally serve to redistribute wealth from agriculture to finance. These include debt, farmland acquisition, commodity hoarding, and derivative and insurance markets. In the following posts, I outline the wealth transfer mechanism in each of these contexts, focusing largely on new data and evidence from the past several years.
There is one thing that my new book is about: corporate control of every aspect of our food system, from how it is labeled to the pesticides we are exposed to. The main thesis of Foodopoly is simple — We, the people, must reclaim our democracy. We must reestablish strong anti-trust laws as part of the progressive agenda if we have any hope of fixing our broken, corporate-controlled food system. And to do that, we need to organize and force our elected officials to create laws that result in a food system that works for consumers and farmers—not big agricultural, food processing, retail and chemical conglomerates.
How has consolidation enabled Monsanto, Tyson, Nestle, Kraft, Cargill, McDonalds and other food/ag/chemical companies to write our food policy, and why is about to get worse? The disastrous decision in the landmark Citizens United case now allows corporations to spend unlimited sums of money to buy the political system. This decision comes at the expense of citizens and democracy itself.
In this video on the Real News Network, PERI Economist James Boyce discusses how industrialized agriculture in the United States endangers the wealth of genetic corn variation, and why hard-pressed small farmers in South America offer a potential counterweight.
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Just when you thought the unhealthy ties between food, fuel, and financial markets couldn’t get more perverse, we get the announcement that Vitol, the world’s largest independent oil trader, is entering the grain-trading business, hiring a team from Viterra, based in Toronto, to run the show. And lest we toss this off as just another corporate deal, Javier Blas in the Financial Times reminds us that Viterra has itself recently been bought by Glencore, perhaps the world’s greatest global commodity speculator.
What could go wrong?
For the world’s poor, plenty. They’ve already endured three food price spikes in the last six years, fueled in part by financial speculators gambling on agricultural, energy, and metals commodities as they fled the wreckage of the housing and stock market crashes. This corporate deal may not change a thing, but it is a powerful symbol of what’s wrong with our broken food system.
Why are development institutions so supportive of the derivatives industry? Given what we now know about derivative instruments and markets—they are complex, volatile, poorly regulated, crisis-prone, and dominated by very large financial firms—the alliance between prominent global development agencies like the World Bank and UNCTAD and the derivatives industry gives real reason for concern. In fact, this appears to be yet another instance in which the interests of the development establishment seem grossly misaligned relative to the goals of the constituencies they purport serve.
As I detail in my recent book on the topic, the governments of commodity dependent economies, agricultural firms involved in commodity trading and processing, and even small farmers have been targeted by these two institutions as actors who stand to benefit from more derivatives trading and the expansion of derivative markets across the developing world. The basic argument is that the welfare of these actors depends critically on prices in global commodities markets. By using derivatives to manage the risk of price fluctuation, tax and export revenues, business revenues and personal incomes could be stabilized and even raised in some cases.
To this end, UNCTAD has been recommending the establishment of local commodity exchanges in a variety of developing countries, exchanges that can both facilitate spot exchanges as well as provide opportunities for forward contracting, and futures and options trading. Similarly, though with a slightly different orientation, the World Bank has been recommending that various developing country parties (public and private) trade on global derivatives exchanges (located mostly in the West) in order to mitigate price risk.
The recent growth resurgence in Africa has dominated the news in the media as well as debates in the development community over the past years. This growth resurgence has important features that are distinct from previous growth accelerations, and inspire the optimistic view that, maybe, Africa could be on a path of more sustained growth. A key feature is that, unlike previous growth episodes, recent growth is not just a natural resource story; in particular, it is not just an oil story. Many among the high growers are resource-poor countries whose economies are primarily agriculture-based, such as Ethiopia, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda and others. Even in the case of oil producers such as Nigeria, agriculture has emerged as a substantial contributor to growth. If Africa is to “conquer the 21st century” it has to rekindle its love for its agriculture.
In the inaugural lecture of the Speaker Series of the African Development Policy program at the Political Economy Research Institute on 22 February 2013, Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard Kennedy School charted a new strategy for Africa’s future based on technology and innovation-driven agricultural development. In his recent book, New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, Calestous Juma provides a blue print for an agricultural development strategy based on four pillars: science and technology, infrastructure, technical capacity, and entrepreneurship. But for this strategy to succeed, it needs new institutions to implement the programs, and, most importantly it requires a developmental leadership that can unify the various centers of decision making (e.g., ministries) and mobilize resource allocation around the agriculture development agenda.
NGOs have stepped up their critique of large investment banks’ involvement in agricultural commodity derivatives markets in recent months. Now, it appears that the banks are starting to fight back.
Last September, the World Development Movement estimated that Barclays earned some $785-million from financial speculation on food commodities in 2010 and 2011. And last month a new WDM report estimated that Goldman Sachs’ earnings from food price speculation in 2012 were over $400 million.
These figures were the latest to come out of a prominent NGO campaign against ‘gambling on hunger’ that has captured widespread attention and concern, particularly in Europe, over the past few years. Investment banks have been a primary target of this campaign, given their important role in facilitating large-scale financial investments in agricultural commodity derivatives, which NGOs say is responsible for food price spikes and rising hunger in the world’s poorest countries.