Who owns the last bite?

Speaking of food-crisis-as-economic-opportunity, Bonnie’s post below is the perfect set-up for a shocker of an article in today’s New York Times business section, “Food is Gold, so Billions Invested in Farming.” (Thanks to Britt for the heads up!) Private mega-investors appear to be hedging their bets on the food crisis by snapping up the means of production. Among their favorite objectifs du jour are land in developing countries, grain elevators in the U.S. Midwest, ethanol plants around the world, fertilizer distribution services, and barges and other transportation infrastructure. ‘Cause where there’s demand, there’s a dollar to be made.

The topic deserves a longer post, but for now, here’s one of the article’s more disturbing examples of this rush to further corporatize the flailing food system:

Emergent [Asset Management, a UK-based investment group] is raising $450 million to $750 million to invest in farmland in sub-Saharan Africa, where it plans to consolidate small plots into more productive holdings and introduce better equipment. … One crop and a source of fuel for farming operations will be jatropha, an oil-seed plant useful for biofuels that is grown in sandy soil unsuitable for food production. … The fund chose Africa because [quoth Susan Payne, Emergent's CEO] “land values are very, very inexpensive, compared to other agriculture-based economies,” she said. “Its microclimates are enticing, allowing a range of different crops. There’s accessible labor. And there’s good logistics — wide open roads, good truck transport, sea transport.”

Hmm. This is eerily familiar. Biofuels may be the new banana, but it still sounds like a republic to me.

The article notes that “these new bets by big investors could bolster food production at a time when the world needs more of it.” But as others have said far more eloquently than I could, the root of the food crisis is not a failure to produce sufficient quantities of food. Instead, it has a lot to do with price volatility driven by the antics of Wall Street speculators themselves, along with the opening up of ag markets to global multinationals who squeeze farmers out of their own domestic markets. Global governments have retreated from their responsibility to support local and regional food production and to maintain grain reserves that could be used to smooth price fluctuations. (For some ideas on how to reverse the trend, see this report [PDF] from IATP.) Throw in growing demand for meat and biofuels, rising fuel prices, and some crazy weather, and you’ve got a big, fat mess.

But don’t worry. Gary R. Blumenthal, CEO of the K Street ag-consulting firm World Perspectives, says that the ownership of our food system by private speculators “could be just what global agriculture needs…. Investment funds are seeing that this consolidation brings value to them. But I’m saying this brings value to everyone.”

Well, I feel better. How about you?

One Responseto “Who owns the last bite?”

  1. Melanie says:

    I heard a similar story earlier on NPR (sorry, couldn’t find the link!) and listened in disbelief. I feel so discouraged when I hear about greed and short-sighted behavior such as this. Thanks for taking on something that I was doing best not to think too hard about.