Industrial Harvest

Talking commodities at the G20 by sarah kavage

At France’s insistence, agriculture ministers of the G20 met this week for the first time ever to discuss ways to curb increasingly volatile (and ever-higher) food prices.

France was pushing pretty hard for curbing speculative activity in food commodities markets – Sarkozy and his agricultural minister were talking tough going into the negotiations, stating that France would not be backing down in these negotiations, even at the expense of getting to a deal.  As much as I admire France for taking this on, they must really relish their world role as surrender monkeys, because no matter how well intentioned the resulting “action plan”, well, it’s weak and watered down and no match for any food price crisis.   The high points of the agreement are an attempt at greater market transparency and a pilot program establishing emergency humanitarian grain reserves.  Other than some weak statements of consensus, that’s about it.  Any restrictions on / further regulation of speculation will be deferred to the G20 finance ministers, who the agriculture ministers “strongly encourage” to take action.  Pardon my cynicism for believing that the finance ministers will take that recommendation straight to the round file.

And back to our regularly scheduled program… by sarah kavage

Over the past weeks / months, this blogspace has been largely populated by emails and a few letters from people that have done all these good deeds with the flour they’ve received from this project – bringing people together to enjoy a good meal, feeding others that are tired from work / studying, need of some inspiration, or just plain hungry.  As great as these stories are, one could look at this blog and forget the impetus behind the Industrial Harvest project, and that’s not my intent at all.

If you need a reminder as to what this project is all about, all you need to do is look at the news.  Food prices have continued to go up – right now, the price of food is higher than it’s ever been, even higher than the food price crisis in 2008.  All that unrest in Tunisia and Egypt?  It may be good for democracy, but it was largely fueled by anger at skyrocketing food prices, which in developing nations are more closely linked to commodities.  In the Middle East and North Africa, wheat is the commodity of choice – Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer.  Algeria (the #4 global wheat importer) also saw food riots recently, along with  Jordan.  As a friend explained to me, wheat is a relatively small market (dwarfed by corn and soy) and therefore more vulnerable to price swings, and these places are highly reliant on that particular staple crop as a source of nourishment.  Big problem – regardless of the regime that’s in place.

There’s no shortage of debate as to what’s making food prices go up.  Some argue that it’s basic supply and demand:  Global population is increasing and urbanizing – and as people in developing nations gain wealth, they consume more meat and more food and more land previously used for farming (as we in the “developed” world consume boatloads of everything, like we always have).  So it is now more difficult to carry over a surplus of staples from year to year, and any uncertain weather or political event event that lowers expected yields will cause prices to spike.

Oh yeah, and those uncertain weather events?  Things like floods, cyclones, droughts, wildfires, late freezes?  There are more and more of those these days, thanks to global climate change, and they certainly impact the global food supply.  Paul Krugman and Joseph Romm at Climate Progress have articulated this argument nicely.  I can’t imagine it yields a lot of satisfaction for the climate scientists, who have been predicting these sorts of things for years, to be vindicated now.

And then there’s the price of fuel, which tracks closely with the price of food – industrially grown commodities require a large amount of energy to grow and transport.  The Peak Oil crowd points out that as oil supplies decline, the prices of both food and fuel will go up even further.  To make things worse, in our desperation for an oil substitute, we are dedicating a significant amount of food crops to producing biofuel.

Other folks point to the devaluation of the US dollar and Bernanke’s policy of “quantitative easing” as the root of the problem.  Ironically, a cheaper US dollar in relation to other currencies drives up the demand for (and subsequently the price of) commodities.

Lastly, there’s the argument that the growth in commodity speculation has played a role – the financialization and deregulation of the  commodities markets (along with the bust in the tech and mortgage derivative markets) have led to an explosion of commodity hedge funds, pension funds, index funds, derivatives, swaps, and on and on.  All that nasty stuff that got us into trouble with the credit and housing crisis is now impacting the food system.

So are Wall Streeters disrupting the food supply in their desire to make a buck?  Well, yes – I think they probably are, and yes, it’s part of the point of this whole Industrial Harvest thing.  Frederick Kaufman’s excellent article for Harpers’ in July was what personally convinced me once and for all, but Kaufman is not the only one sounding the alarm.  Some EU countries – primarily France – have recently spoken up in favor of stronger regulation of commodity markets.  France, as the leader of the G20 this year, is poised to push this issue.  The UN Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) is right there with them.  And all of a sudden, in the midst of all the hubbub around Egypt, a few mainstream news outlets seem to be starting to pick up the story as well.  Better late than never, guys (see here, here and here).

Of course, it’s unrealistic to pretend that what’s going on with food prices is based on any single factor.  Nor can I be 100% sure what’s going on.  But, if someone asked me, I would sum up my view of the situation as increased demand and a host of other factors (climate events, biofuels, monetary policy, etc.) magnified by a pretty large and unstable speculative system, which is in turn driven by a few huge, powerful, vertically integrated corporations.  This is all exacerbated by the fact that with markets it doesn’t matter what’s actually happening – it just matters what people think is happening – and what people think people think is happening (and so on).   The fact that this house of cards could be brought down by any of, oh, 5 or 10 or 100 different and / or random events (or all of them, or some of them) is not only discomfiting.  It also makes it easy for any single party to point the finger at the others, effectively diffusing responsibility, perpetuating ignorance and causing those who should care to throw up their hands in inaction and confusion.