No one likes having to pay more for their groceries, but for many people in countries like Tajikistan, the rising cost of food doesn’t just mean sacrificing on other purchases—it can mean going hungry on a regular basis. Worse still, the World Bank has warned that this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Among the various factors at play in the rise of food costs, Time points to financial speculation as a main culprit.
The practice of speculation has been a regular part of the agricultural-commodities futures market for a long time, but the people making the trades—as well as the logic behind them—have changed over the years. In the past, “those with an actual commercial interest—food producers and buyers—use[d] this market to bet against price increases and decreases as a form of insurance against volatility.” Since the new millenium, “investment banks and other financial actors began to bet on commodities as speculation, not as insurance.”
U.K.-based group World Development Movement says the deregulation of the market led a huge increase in financial sector involvement, from 12% to over 60%. Moreover, “the German NGO Foodwatch points out that investment in food commodities has jumped from $65 billion to $126 billion in the past five years.” Then there is this telling figure: In 2011, the money poured into speculative investment in food commodities was 20 times that of agricultural aid worldwide.
Still, based only on these stats, Time warns readers not to conclude that a select group of financiers are “the boogiemen responsible for food price volatility.” The publication also points to several instances where banks and/or investment firms have cut back such activities. Meanwhile, campaigners and regulators are seeking to impose limits on the activity, but figuring out the proper ceiling for speculation has proved problematic.