How Investment Bankers Cause Starvation


You can forget the familiar argument about whether or not sustainable, organic agriculture can feed a growing population, or whether we need genetically modified foods to increase production.

It’s nothing more than a Red Herring.

It’s not that we don’t have enough food to feed the world. The problem is that there is a wealthy class of speculators who think nothing of gambling with people’s stomachs and lives in an effort to make a profit on the world food commodity markets.

Remember back in spring of 2008, before the economy completely imploded but things were looking shaky? Food prices that had been rising for a couple of years peaked and then suddenly dropped again. Nobody could figure out exactly what happened. Even here in the U.S. – the land of plenty – Costco began rationing rice when food prices reached their height.

I even wrote a post about it. Turns out I didn’t know the half of it.

What happened were two things:

The creation of derivatives in food commodities and the collapsing U.S. real estate market.

Are you prepared to get really angry? This opinion piece in The Independent details how powerful investment banker lobbyists fought hard to repeal regulations that once ensured only those people directly involved in agriculture could invest in food commodity markets. These lobbyists wanted the food commodity markets to be open to trade by anyone by creating derivatives.

What are derivatives you ask? They are contracts that act as stand-ins for an actual physical item being sold. They provide investors with more leverage for a smaller investment. So when a farmer contracts to sell her wheat to a trader, that trader can turn around and sell the contract to other traders. And so on. Pretty soon, the price is based entirely on market psychology, rather than the actual value of the wheat. And the investor makes more money by gambling on prices going up, which causes prices to go up. When food prices go up, poor people with incomes of $1-$2 a day simply starve.

The mortgage derivatives that brought down our housing market (and economy) worked the same way. Mortgages that were worth much less than the physiology of the market said they were worth more, and therefore sold and resold. In such cases, somebody is always left holding the empty bag. In all cases, it’s the people without the power. In the case of the toxic mortgages, it was homeowners with no financial leverage or renters living in homes that were foreclosed on through no fault of their own.

Here is the definition of a derivative from Investopedia: “A derivative is a security whose price is dependent upon or derived from one or more underlying assets. The derivative itself is merely a contract between two or more parties. Its value is determined by fluctuations in the underlying asset – derivatives are generally used as an instrument to hedge risk, but can also be used for speculative purposes.”

Ironically, the laws that led to mortgage derivatives are what ended up causing the food price spike that, according to the above referenced piece in The Independent, caused the price of wheat to go up by 80 percent, maize by 90 percent, rice by 320 percent, and 200 million people globally to starve.

That’s because, back in 2006, while urban dwellers in areas like The San Francisco Bay Area were continuing to outbid one another for 2 bedroom shacks, the rats-in-suits at Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch knew that the housing market was going to collapse. So they got out.

They pulled out of the real estate market and invested in food commodities, causing prices to rise astronomically. They made money. Oh yes they did. All while bringing the world economy to its knees. Then we bailed them out.

As the financial reform package winds its way through Congress, with mixed results when it comes to real reform, it might be a good idea to contact your representatives and let them know how you feel about the big bankers causing people in distant countries to starve.

Or as the writer of the piece in The Independent urges, get involved in The World Development Movement.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

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Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.