The threat of rising food prices

This is as much a part of what’s wrong with our financial sector as the Greek and Irish debt crises.

While inertia continues to define the coalition government's approach to banking regulation, the bankers are happily enjoying yet another free-for-all spending splurge – and fears are emerging of a new bubble. This time, it's a commodity bubble, similar to the one that led to food riots around the world in 2007 and 2008.

In case you hadn't noticed, food prices are at an all-time high: the latest figures show food price inflation at 5.5 per cent, outpacing the overall inflation figure of 3.3 per cent. You'll be paying as much as 25 per cent more for your regular cuppa as tea prices rise; and we already saw the cost of our Christmas turkey go up by more than £3 before Christmas, due to the doubling in feed costs in 2010.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation's Food Price Index, released last week, shows that a range of basic food prices are actually higher than they were when food riots broke out in places like Mozambique, Egypt and Haiti just two years ago. In the first week of December, the benchmarked US wheat price reached $327 per tonne, which is a staggering 70 per cent higher than that for July 2010, just six months earlier.

Some market analysts would have us believe that it's a simple case of time-honoured supply and demand. But aren't these the same analysts who also said that mortgage derivatives were a good bet for investors? Market fetishists often fail to ignore the evidence as it suits them.

Although the long-term trends do point to a gradual rise in prices, due to a range of reasons from climate change and biofuel production to increasing consumption, basic supply and demand alone doesn't account for the high price volatility and huge changes being seen in recent months.

Price spikes of upwards of 70 per cent are being led by hedge funds, investment bankers and pension funds that have poured over $200bn into food markets since the financial crisis, betting on prices going ever higher. With few options to place your bets these days, and especially with the ready-made cash available through quantitative easing, food isn't a bad place to start – for the bankers, anyway.

A few extra pence for a loaf of bread doesn't seem like a lot to most of us, but the story is rather different if you're in a developing country, relying on imported staple foods just to get by.

Meanwhile, the replay of food riots began last week, with three people killed and 300 injured in disturbances that broke out in Algeria. For some of the poorest people in the world, as prices rise, education falls by the wayside; basic assets such as farm animals get sold, and a short-term crisis can lead to long-term chronic malnourishment for a generation.

Food isn't an asset like any other – it's fundamental to human life. Commodity markets exist to enable people to buy and sell food, but are now the best place for speculators to make a quick buck through murky "over-the-counter" trades and a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever-rising prices.

The story of food prices is as much a part of the picture of what's wrong with our financial sector as the Greek and Irish debt crises, or the obscene level of bankers' bonuses. The reality is that the same speculators who caused the global economic meltdown through their illustrious trade in sub-prime mortgages are now betting on our food system, too.

The issue has prompted the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to plan to raise the matter with Barack Obama later this week in Washington, as part of France's duties as leader of the G20.

So when the coalition government decides to ignore the evidence and turn a blind eye to regulating the banking sector, the result is inflation and ongoing volatility in financial markets, failing people far beyond our borders.

These markets need to be brought back under control, limiting excessive speculation, ensuring that markets are fully transparent, and not holding the rest of us to ransom through unnecessary and unscrupulous price rises.

Deborah Doane is director of the World Development Movement.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.