Farmer Giles can agree in January to sell his crop to a trader in August at a fixed price. If he has a great summer and the global price is high, he'll lose some cash, but if there's a lousy summer or the price collapses, he'll do well from the deal. When this process was tightly regulated and only companies with a direct interest in the field could get involved, it worked well.
Then, through the 1990s, Goldman Sachs and others lobbied hard and the regulations were abolished.
Irwin, S. H. and D. R. Sanders (2010), The Impact of Index and Swap Funds on Commodity Futures Markets: Preliminary Results
What Hari is suggesting therefore is akin to saying the outcome of the Grand National is influenced by the number of bets taken on any particular horse.
In 2007-2008, the standard of living of more than half of the world population dropped dramatically when the price of food soared. There were massive demonstrations in at least fifteen countries in the first half of 2008. Tens of millions of people more than before faced hunger, and hundreds of millions had to reduce their food consumption (and consequently, their access to other essential goods and services).
All of this was the result of decisions made by a handful of companies in the agro-industry and the financial sector (the institutional investors who contribute to doping the prices of agricultural products) with the backup of the US administration and the European Commission. In fact, the percentage of exports in the world production of food remains small.
Only a small part of the rice, wheat or corn produced in the world is exported, while by far the greater amount is consumed in the country of production. However, the price on the export market determines the price on the local market. The export market price is fixed in the United States, mainly in three stock exchanges (Chicago, Minneapolis and Kansas City). Consequently, the price of rice, wheat or corn in Timbuctu, Mexico, Nairobi, and Islamabad is directly affected by the evolution of the prices of these cereals on the United States stock markets.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Block put it at the start of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations in 1986, “the idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on U.S. agricultural products, which are available, in most cases at lower cost.”
Aren't high prices good for poor farmers in developing countries as they'll get better prices for their produce?
No, high food prices affect poor farmers as well as the urban poor. A high percentage of rural households are net buyers of staple foods. In Kenya and Mozambique, around 60 per cent of rural householders are net buyers of maize. Very few poor farmers produce a significant surplus to sell. In Zambia, 80 per cent of farm households grow maize, but fewer than 30 per cent sell any. The few households which make up the bulk of maize sellers have significantly higher incomes.
Any farmers who do have a surplus to sell may see little benefit of higher prices. The FAO says that consumers in urban areas are more likely to see the effects of higher prices than producers in rural areas. Moreover, large producers which are part of large (sometimes multinational) companies are most able to benefit from high prices. Africa has gone from being a net exporter of food in 1970 to a massive net importer. Around 55 per cent of developing countries are net food importers and almost all countries in Africa are now net importers of cereals. This means they are hugely reliant on the world food prices of their staple foods and higher prices have a direct impact on their ability to feed themselves.
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