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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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