Inflation and Speculation: Ingredients for the Next Food Crisis?

First Lady Michelle Obama was heartily cheered last week when she visited a food bank and then went home to break ground for an organic "victory garden" on the White House lawn. Mrs. Obama's high-profile activities are good news to anti-hunger groups and advocates of good, local, healthy food. This upbeat news contrasts starkly with the increasing probability of a return to the 2008 global food crisis.

In March of 2008 the price of food commodities hit an all-time high, sending 100 million people into the ranks of the hungry, worldwide. Food price inflation got started with droughts, rising oil prices, and an increase in demand for grain (mostly coming from feedlots and biofuels plants). Then, as prices rose, investors-hungry in the aftermath of the housing bust-pounced on rising commodity futures, creating a "food bubble." There is now wide agreement that speculation in food was the major cause of the skyrocketing food prices that led to the 2008 global food crisis.

Though commodities prices are down, some investors are already betting on a rebound by the third or forth quarter. Despite low prices now, all the ingredients of 2008's toxic, speculative bubble are still with us today. This year, the specter of widespread drought will be added to the mix. A simple map overlay of countries with the highest agricultural output and the countries facing drought led one analyst at Britain's Market Oracle to predict a "catastrophic fall" in global food production for 2009. Even a small shortfall in global food production (or the threat of it), combined with a weak dollar and rising oil prices could be enough to create another burst of speculative activity in food commodities. Last year food price inflation kicked of a financial crisis and the global recession. This year's recession-and rising unemployment-could turn the even a small upswing in prices into a full-blown global disaster.

But, there is no need to wait passively for the next "silent tsunami." Simple measures could be taken to pull us back from this brink. Until 2000, speculation and index investing in commodities markets was regulated, preventing these very boom-bust cycles. Calls are mounting for a return to those policies.

Last week, nearly 200 organizations delivered a letter to president Obama asking him to re-regulate the commodities markets. The letter points out that the 2008 food price volatility "could have been stopped with sensible rules that, if enforced, would have staved off the malnutrition and starvation... caused by excessive gambling on food prices." Speculation put our economy at risk and may yet crash Wall Street. Speculation in food could crash the world's food systems.

"Investors need to realize that their apparently innocent investments in food and energy commodity futures have driven up world food prices. This has forced hundreds of millions of people already living on the edge into desperate situations. Children are going hungry, even dying." said David Kane of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, one of the letter's authors. "It is absolutely unacceptable that investors are enriching themselves off of the suffering of so many. President Obama and the Congress must act quickly in order to avoid another food crisis this year."

In order to weather the economic crisis, we will need victory gardens like Mrs. Obama's. But to protect both the economy and the food system, Mr. Obama must put a stop to food speculation.

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