GRAIN , an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) which promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge reports on the food price crisis .
Farmers across the world produced a record 2.3 billion tons of grain in 2007, up 4% on the previous year. Since 1961 the world’s cereal output has tripled, while the population has doubled. Stocks are at their lowest level in 30 years, it’s true,but the bottom line is that there is enough food produced in the world to feed the population. The problem is that it doesn’t get to all of those who need it. Less than half of the world’s grain production is directly eaten by people. Most goes into animal feed and, increasingly, biofuels – massive inflexible industrial chains.
The price of wheat has gone up by 130% over the last year. Rice has doubled in price in Asia in the first three months of 2008 alone,and just last week it hit record highs on the Chicago futures market.For most of 2007 the spiralling cost of cooking oil, fruit and vegetables, as well as of dairy and meat, led to a fall in the consumption of these items.The UN World Food Programme estimates that recent price hikes have meant that an additional 100 million people can no longer afford to eat adequately
We have allowed food to be transformed from something that nourishes people and provides them with secure livelihoods into a commodity for speculation and bargaining. The perverse logic of this system has come to a head. Today it is staring us in the face that this system puts the profits of investors before the food needs of people.
With wheat, export bans or restrictions in Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and Argentina mean that a third of the global market has now been closed off. The situation with rice is even worse: China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, India and Cambodia have banned or severely restricted exports, leaving just a few sources of export supply, mainly Thailand and the US. Countries like Bangladesh can’t buy the rice they need now because the prices are so high. 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. According to some estimates, investment funds now control 50–60% of the wheat traded on the world’s biggest commodity markets. 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.
The truth about who profits and who loses from our global food system has never been more obvious. Take the most basic element of food production: soil. The industrial food system is a chemical-fertiliser junkie. It needs more and more of the stuff just to keep alive, eroding soils and their potential to support crop yields in the process. In the current context of tight food supplies, the small clique of corporations that control the world’s fertiliser market can charge what they want – and that’s exactly what they are doing. Profits at Cargill’s Mosaic Corporation, which controls much of the world’s potash and phosphate supply, more than doubled last year. The world’s largest potash producer, Canada’s Potash Corp, made more than US$1 billion in profit, up more than 70% from 2006. 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.
While big money is being made from fertilisers, it is just a sideline for Cargill. Its biggest profits come from global trading in agricultural commodities, which, together with a few other big traders, it pretty much monopolises. On 14 April 2008, Cargill announced that its profits from commodity trading for the first quarter of 2008 were 86% higher than the same period in 2007. “Demand for food in developing economies and for energy worldwide is boosting demand for agricultural goods, at the same time that investment monies have streamed into commodity markets,” said Greg Page, Cargill’s chairman and chief executive officer. “Prices are setting new highs and markets are extraordinarily volatile. In this environment, Cargill’s team has done an exceptional job measuring and assessing price risk, and managing the large volume of grains, oilseeds and other commodities moving through our supply chains for customers globally.”
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.
The world’s big food processors, some of which are commodity traders themselves, are also cashing in. Nestlé’s global sales grew 7% last year. “We saw this coming, so we hedged by forward-buying raw materials”, says François-Xavier Perroud, Nestlé’s spokesman. UK supermarket Tesco reports profits up 12.3% from last year, a record rise. Other major retailers, such as France’s Carrefour and the US’s Wal-Mart, say that food sales are the main factor sustaining their profit increases. Wal-Mart’s Mexican division, Wal-Mex, which handles a third of overall food sales in Mexico, reported an 11% increase in profits for the first quarter of 2008.(At the same time Mexicans are demonstrating in the streets because they can no longer afford to make tortillas)
It seems that nearly every corporate player in the global food chain is making a killing from the food crisis. The seed and agrochemical companies are doing well too. Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, reported a 44% increase in overall profits in 2007. DuPont, the second-largest, said that its 2007 profits from seeds increased by 19%, while Syngenta, the top pesticide manufacturer and third-largest company for seeds, saw profits rise 28% in the first quarter of 2008.
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.