Making a Killing From Hunger

I get a feeling some of the facts and theories are presented in a bit too extreme an angle but still, this article about how some people are Making a killing from hunger made me rethink some of my assumptions about the food crisis and contains a lot of important information.

Nutshell version : Free trade and globalization, coupled with farmer subsidies in rich countries have forced small crop producers in poorer countries out of business. Now that predatory speculators treating the food system like a stock market and fertilizer/seed producers making a killing (literally) from high prices on their products have made various crops too expensive for these same poor countries, creating the current food crisis. (ethanol doesn’t help)

Nothing that the policy makers say should obscure the fact that today’s food crisis is the outcome of both an incessant push towards a “Green Revolution” agricultural model since the 1950s and the trade liberalisation and structural adjustment policies imposed on poor countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund since the 1970s. These policy prescriptions were reinforced with the establishment of the World Trade Organisation in the mid-1990s and, more recently, through a barrage of bilateral free trade and investment agreements. Together with a series of other measures, they have led to the ruthless dismantling of tariffs and other tools that developing countries had created to protect local agricultural production. These countries have been forced to open their markets and lands to global agribusiness, speculators and subsidised food exports from rich countries. In that process, fertile lands have been diverted away from serving local food markets to the production of global commodities or off-season and high-value crops for Western supermarkets. Today, roughly 70% of all so-called developing countries are net importers of food.[5] And of the estimated 845 million hungry people in the world, 80% are small farmers.[6] Add to this the re-engineering of credit and financial markets to create a massive debt industry, with no control on investors, and the depth of the problem becomes clear.

For years the World Bank and the IMF have told countries that a liberalised market would provide the most efficient system for producing and distributing food, yet today the world’s poorest countries are forced into an intense bidding war against speculators and traders, who are having a field day. Hedge funds and other sources of hot money are pouring billions of dollars into commodities to escape sliding stock markets and the credit crunch, putting food stocks further out of poor people’s reach.[8] According to some estimates, investment funds now control 50–60% of the wheat traded on the world’s biggest commodity markets.[9] One firm calculates that the amount of speculative money in commodities futures – markets where investors do not buy or sell a physical commodity, like rice or wheat, but merely bet on price movements – has ballooned from US$5 billion in 2000 to US$175 billion to 2007.[10]

In Asia, the World Bank constantly assured the Philippines, even as recently as last year, that self-sufficiency in rice was unnecessary and that the world market would take care of its needs.[12] Now the government is in a desperate plight: its domestic supply of subsidised rice is nearly exhausted and it cannot import all it needs because traders’ asking prices are too high.

Profits at Cargill’s Mosaic Corporation, which controls much of the world’s potash and phosphate supply, more than doubled last year.[13] The world’s largest potash producer, Canada’s Potash Corp, made more than US$1 billion in profit, up more than 70% from 2006.[14] Panicking now about future supplies, governments are becoming desperate to boost their harvests, giving these corporations additional leverage. In April 2008, the joint offshore trading arm for Mosaic and Potash hiked the price of its potash by 40% for buyers from Southeast Asia and by 85% for those from Latin American. India had to pay 130% more than last year, and China 227% more.

(I’m guessing some of those price hikes “compensate” for previously prices kept low and rising as those countries’ economies get stronger but when you’re making billions in profit…)

Indeed, all of the big grain traders are making record profits. Bunge, another big food trader, saw its profits of the last fiscal quarter of 2007 increase by US$245 million, or 77%, compared with the same period of the previous year. The 2007 profits registered by ADM, the second largest grain trader in the world, rose by 65% to a record US$2.2 billion. Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Foods, a major player in Asia, is forecasting revenue growth of 237% this year.

Such record profits have nothing to do with any new value that these corporations are producing and they are not one-off windfalls from a sudden shift in supply and demand. Instead, they are a reflection of the extreme power that these middlemen have accrued through the globalisation of the food system. Intimately involved with the shaping of the trade rules that govern today’s food system and tightly in control of markets and the ever more complex financial systems through which global trade operates, these companies are in perfect position to turn food scarcity into immense profits. People have to eat, whatever the cost.

We need policies that support and protect farmers, fishers and others to produce food for their families, for the local markets and for people in cities, rather than money for an abstract international commodity market and a tiny clan of corporate boardroom executives. And we need to strengthen and promote the use of technologies based on the knowledge and in the control of those who know how to grow food. To put it another way, we need food sovereignty, now – the kind that is defined and driven by small farmers and fisherfolk themselves.

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