Reports over the weekend saw some of the world's most powerful financial institutions accused of profiteering on the backs of the world's poorest people and those most vulnerable to the wild price fluctuations caused by over-rampant speculation on the price of food commodities like wheat, soy beans, and corn.
"Barclays is the UK bank with the greatest involvement in food commodity trading and is one of the three biggest global players, along with the US banking giants Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley," reported the UK's Independent, citing research from the World Development Movement.
Christine Haigh, policy and campaigns officer at the WDM and one of the analysts behind the research, said the behavior of the banks "risks fuelling a speculative bubble and contributing to hunger and poverty for millions of the world's poorest people."
As droughts have devastated grain crops in major agricultural strongholds like the US and India this year, experts warn of a food crisis taking shape across the globe. The accusations of 'profiteering' by groups like WDM and Oxfam International, however, transcend the price changes due to external conditions like drought or farmers who use commodity indexes to protect the price of their crops, and speak to the greed and recklessness of investors who create volatile trading conditions by speculating on the future prices of such commodities with no regard for the harm it does to real people.
"Fragile populations around the world, living on or near the poverty line, will be dragged under by price spikes and volatility," said Oxfam in a recent statement. "Nearly a billion people are already too poor to feed themselves, so any long-term food spike is guaranteed to trap millions more who are now just 'getting by'."
The World Development Movement report estimates that Barclays made as much as $840 million from its "food speculative activities" over the course of 2010 and 2011. Barclays made much more from food speculation in 2010, as the prices of agricultural commodities were rising, and a smaller sum in 2011 as prices fell.
As the Independent reported: "The extent of just one bank's involvement in agricultural markets will add to concerns that food speculation could help push basic prices so high that they trigger a wave of riots in the world's poorest countries, as staples drift out of their populations' reach."
Oxfam's private sector adviser, Rob Nash, said: "The food market is becoming a playground for investors rather than a market place for farmers. The trend of big investors betting on food prices is transforming food into a financial asset while exacerbating the risk of price spikes that hit the poor hardest."
And the Independent adds:
The revenues that Barclays and other banks make from trading in everything from wheat and corn to coffee and cocoa, are expected to increase this year, with prices once again on the rise. Corn prices have risen by 45 per cent since the start of June, with wheat jumping by 30 per cent.
Barclays makes most of its "food-speculation" revenues by setting up and managing commodity funds that invest money from pension funds, insurance companies and wealthy individuals in a variety of agricultural products in return for fees and commissions. The bank claims not to invest its own money in such commodities.
Since deregulation allowed the creation of such funds in 2000, institutions such as Barclays have collectively channelled an astonishing $200bn (£126bn) of investment cash into agricultural commodities, according to the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
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