Why did Commodity Prices Move Together?

Manisha Pradhananga, Guest Blogger

Remember the 2008-11 food price spike? It led to food riots in many parts of the world and increased the number of malnourished people by 80 million worldwide (USDA 2009). What many people don’t know about the price spike is that besides the rise in magnitude, it was distinctive for the breadth of commodities affected. Prices of a wide range of commodities including agricultural (wheat, corn, soybeans, cocoa, coffee), energy (crude oil, gasoline), and metals (copper, aluminum), all rose and fell together during this period.

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Source: IFS, commodity prices. Normalized by demeaning and dividing by standard deviation of each series

It is not unusual for prices of related commodities to move together; if two commodities are either complements or substitutes in production or consumption, then a demand or supply shock in one commodity market may be transmitted to the other. For example, prices of certain industrial metals may move together if they are jointly used to produce alloys. Similarly, prices of grains such as corn, wheat, rice, and barley may move together if they are substitutes in consumption. However, commodity-specific shocks cannot explain co-movement of unrelated commodities, like the one observed in 2008-11 (Gilbert 2010, Frankel and Rose 2009). Many of the factors that were initially given as explanations for the price spike—such as drought, or the use of corn and oil-seeds to produce biofuels—are thus unable to explain this rise in comovement between commodity prices. Only factors that can affect many commodity markets simultaneously can be considered as explanations. In a recent paper, I focus on one of these factors, financialization of the commodities futures market, and explore the links between financialization and comovement.

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Mandating Food Insecurity

The Global Impacts of Rising Biofuel Mandates and Targets

Timothy A. Wise

In collaboration with ActionAid USA, I just co-authored a new study on the high social and environmental costs of government mandates and targets for biofuel consumption. As the summary below suggests, when oil prices are low such mandates, such as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in the United States, prop up biofuels markets. As the study shows, the United States is the worst biofuels offender. On our present course, we will remain by far the largest global consumer in 2025, contribute the most new demand to global consumption, and do so using the feedstock – corn – that provides the fewest environmental benefits and most directly competes with food and feed markets. Reform is desperately needed, and current proposals in Congress to scale back RFS mandates should be enacted.

Expanding demand for biofuels, fed significantly by government policies mandating rising levels of consumption in transportation fuel, has been strongly implicated in food price increases and food price volatility most recently seen in 2008 and 2011-2012. First-generation biofuels, made from agricultural crops, divert food directly to fuel markets and divert land, water and other food-producing resources from their current or potential uses for production of feed for animals and food for human consumption.

A key policy driver of biofuel consumption is government mandates to increase or maintain rates or levels of biofuel blends in transportation fuel, the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard and the E.U. Renewable Energy Directive being the most prominent cases. Mandates prop up demand for biofuels, particularly at times when oil prices are relatively low. In a new GDAE Working Paper, Timothy A. Wise and Emily Cole assess the spread of such mandates and targets, finding that at least 64 countries now have such policies. A related policy report from Action Aid USA calls for immediate policy reform.

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To Feed the World in 2050 We Have to Change Course

Timothy A. Wise and Kristin Sundell

Regular Triple Crisis contributor Timothy A. Wise (Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE), Tufts University) and Kristin Sundell (ActionAid USA) are the co-authors of the ActionAid report “Rising to the Challenge: Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050.”

The 2008 global food price spikes were a wake-up call to global policymakers, shaking them from the lethargic slumber of the overfed. The rhetorical responses were swift, but policies and practices have changed little. That is in part because they relied on the tried-and-failed solution of increasing commodity food production.

Agribusiness led the charge, with dire warnings about unsustainable population growth and looming resource constraints. How can we produce enough food to feed this growing population?

“Between now and 2050, we need to double the food supply,” said Dr. Robert Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Monsanto, during an interview withNational Public Radio’s Takeaway host John Hockenberry.“That’s probably the greatest challenge facing mankind.”

Indeed, that is the theme of this year’s World Food Prize event, taking place October 15-17 in Des Moines, Iowa. This event promises more of the same solutions.

The panic is not warranted, the claims about the need to double food production are unfounded. According to ActionAid’s report, “Rising to the Challenge: Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050,” the solutions lie not in the rush to increase industrial food production but in supporting sustainable and productive farming practices among small-scale farmers – particularly women – in developing countries while halting the diversion of food to biofuels and reducing the obscene levels of waste and spoilage that keep one-third of the world’s food from nourishing anyone.

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High Risks, Few Rewards for Mexico with Monsanto’s Maize

Timothy A. Wise

Triple Crisis contributor Timothy A. Wise’s analysis of genetically modified maize and the risks to Mexico, the world’s cradle of maize cultivation, continues. His previous posts on the topic can be read here and here.

I had come to Mexico to investigate the ongoing controversy over the proposed introduction of genetically modified (GM) maize into the birthplace of this important global food crop. The issue was hot, because last October a Mexican judge had issued an injunction halting all experimental and commercial planting of GM maize, a process that was well underway in six northern states. The ruling cited the need for precaution to ensure that Mexico’s rich diversity of maize varieties were protected from inadvertent “gene flow” from GM maize.

As I began to investigate this most controversial of biotech initiatives, the question that most puzzled me was: why anyone in Mexico thinks the country needs anything that transgenic maize has to offer?

Monsanto, of course, had an answer to that question. I met with a group of company officials in their high-rise offices in Mexico City’s transnational business district of Santa Fe. They offered their “Vision 2020,” in which transgenic maize is key to feeding the world. In Mexico, they argued, it would help double Mexican maize production, reduce persistent rural poverty among the country’s small-scale maize farmers, restore the country’s self-sufficiency in its key food staple and reduce the negative environmental impacts of maize farming. They even used the term “food sovereignty” to describe their goal for Mexico. This was more than a vision; this was a hallucination.

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High Risks, Few Rewards for Mexico with Monsanto's Maize

Timothy A. Wise

Triple Crisis contributor Timothy A. Wise’s analysis of genetically modified maize and the risks to Mexico, the world’s cradle of maize cultivation, continues. His previous posts on the topic can be read here and here.

I had come to Mexico to investigate the ongoing controversy over the proposed introduction of genetically modified (GM) maize into the birthplace of this important global food crop. The issue was hot, because last October a Mexican judge had issued an injunction halting all experimental and commercial planting of GM maize, a process that was well underway in six northern states. The ruling cited the need for precaution to ensure that Mexico’s rich diversity of maize varieties were protected from inadvertent “gene flow” from GM maize.

As I began to investigate this most controversial of biotech initiatives, the question that most puzzled me was: why anyone in Mexico thinks the country needs anything that transgenic maize has to offer?

Monsanto, of course, had an answer to that question. I met with a group of company officials in their high-rise offices in Mexico City’s transnational business district of Santa Fe. They offered their “Vision 2020,” in which transgenic maize is key to feeding the world. In Mexico, they argued, it would help double Mexican maize production, reduce persistent rural poverty among the country’s small-scale maize farmers, restore the country’s self-sufficiency in its key food staple and reduce the negative environmental impacts of maize farming. They even used the term “food sovereignty” to describe their goal for Mexico. This was more than a vision; this was a hallucination.

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Global Food Security Needs States to Ally with Family Farmers

Sylvia Kay, Guest Blogger

Sylvia Kay is a researcher at Transnational Institute (TNI). She works on a wide range of issues including land grabbing, water, and agricultural investment.

South Africa’s most famous cleric, Desmond Tutu, in his inimitable style, once said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” His blunt speaking has particular relevance to important negotiations taking place in Rome this week at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, which will define principles for “responsible agricultural investment” (known as RAI) in the context of an ongoing food crisis and an unprecedented wave of land grabbing.

When it comes to agriculture and food, the elephant is agribusiness. Just three companies control 50% of the commercial seed market; only four companies control 75% of the global trade in grains and soya. Their argument is that the state’s role should be that of a neutral broker, encouraging primarily private investment in agriculture. They are willing to accept guidelines for “responsible investment,” but within a model that sees ever increasing levels of foreign direct investment and the deepening and further integration of national agricultural sectors into global commodity chains and markets. Theirs is essentially a business-as-usual approach which seeks to retrofit the RAI principles to existing agribusiness initiatives.

While such principles will boost the profits of some corporations, the evidence shows that it will not deliver on the CFS mandate to realise the right to adequate food for all. One in eight people in the world are currently undernourished—and this has worsened in recent years. In fact, reliance on global markets led to global food prices in 2007 rising to levels in real terms not witnessed since 1846. This has not only added between 130 to 150 million people to those living in extreme poverty, it has also fueled an unprecedented wave of land grabbing across the global South by governments seeking security from food riots and corporations seeking profits from perceived scarcity.

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Mexico and Monsanto: Taking precaution in the face of genetic contamination

Timothy A. Wise

Regular Triple Crisis contributor Timothy A. Wise leads the Globalization and Sustainable Development Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE), Tufts University. This is the second installment in his series on Mexico, genetically modified organisms, and genetic contamination of native maize. See his earlier post on the subject here.

To listen to the current debates over the controversial requests by Monsanto and other biotech giants to grow genetically modified (GM) maize in Mexico, you’d think the danger to the country’s rich biodiversity in maize was hypothetical. It is anything but.

Studies have found the presence of transgenes in native maize in nearly half of Mexico’s states. A study of maize diversity within the confines of Mexico’s sprawling capital city revealed transgenic maize in 70 percent of the samples from the area of Xochimilco and 49 percent of those from Tlalpan.

Mexico is the “center of origin” where maize was first domesticated from its wild ancestor, teocinte. The country is arguably the last place you’d want to risk the possibility that its wide array of native seeds might be undermined by what indigenous people have called “genetic pollution” from GM maize.

Last October, a judge issued an injunction putting a halt to all experimental and commercial planting until it can be proven that native maize varieties are not threatened by “gene flow” from GM maize. The precautionary measure comes more than a decade too late.

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Monsanto Meets its Match in the Birthplace of Maize

Timothy A. Wise

On April 21, a Mexican judge dealt a blow to the efforts of agricultural behemoth Monsanto and other biotech companies to open the country to the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) maize. The ruling upheld the injunction issued last October that put a halt to further testing or commercial planting of the crop, citing “the risk of imminent harm to the environment.”

In a fitting tribute to Mexican surrealism, Monsanto had accused the judge who upheld the injunction of failing to be “impartial.” I don’t know if the presiding judge smiled when he denied Monsanto’s complaint, but I did.

I had just arrived in Mexico to look at the GM controversy, and I could tell it was going to be quite a visit.

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Cultivating Responsibility: Where Does the Buck Stop in Agricultural Investment?

Jennifer Clapp

A recently published Oxfam briefing paper, Smallholders at Risk, challenges a number of mainstream assumptions about the role of private-sector investment in developing country agriculture. The conventional wisdom from the World Bank and other powerful actors is that private investment in the sector will benefit smallholders and enhance food security.

Oxfam’s research shows that, even in cases where private investors claim to be investing “responsibly”, the outcomes can nonetheless be harmful to food security and smallholder livelihoods. This happened in the cases the organization examined in Paraguay, Guatemala, and Colombia involving large-scale private investments in soy, oil palm, and maize that displaced farmers, degraded the environment, and contributed to hunger.

The general response to this kind of outcome has been to promote voluntary initiatives that encourage more responsible investment. A spate of recent initiatives explicitly seek to promote responsibility among investors in the sector: the responsible agricultural investment (RAI) principles currently being developed by the Committee on World Food Security, the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (PRAI) promoted by the World Bank and UNCTAD, as well as a range of other initiatives including commodity specific certification schemes.

These efforts aim to ensure that private sector investment avoids the kind of pitfalls that Oxfam’s research highlights. But voluntary initiatives alone are unlikely to make much of a difference, no matter how strongly they are worded.

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Junk Food Games and Schoolchildren

Sunita Narain

“There is nothing called junk food. The problem with obesity lies with children who do not exercise enough. What is needed is for them to run and jump, and to do this they need to consume high-calorie food. So, food high in salt, sugar and fat is good for them.” This is what was argued vehemently and rudely by representatives of the food industry in the committee, set up under directions from the Delhi High Court to frame guidelines for junk food in the country.

On the face of it there was no one from the junk food industry in the committee. In the early meetings, we only knew that there were members of two associations who were representing the food industry in the committee. But as discussions got under way, it became clear that the big junk food industry was present in the meeting. We learnt that the member representing the National Restaurant Association of India was a top official from Coca-Cola—the world’s most powerful beverage company that is at the centre of the junk food debate globally. The other grouping, All India Food Processors Association, was represented by Swiss food giant Nestle, which has commercial interest in instant noodles and other junk food.

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