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Small harvests

Andreas Becker / dbAugust 16, 2012

As droughts destroy crops, experts fear additional increases in food prices as harvests shrink. Some German banks halted food-related investments to stop exacerbating the trend, but not all institutions are on board.

Corn stalks struggling on cracked earth. (Foto:Seth Perlman/AP) /
Image: AP

Banks generally do not get much in the way of praise from development aid workers and environmentalists, but Germany's Commerzbank has seen itself showered in positive acclaim for its decision to stop food-related speculation.

"Other banks should follow the example of Commerzbank," the German NGO Foodwatch said.

Since the 2008 food crisis, financial products based on agricultural commodities have been under fire. Market speculation is believed to push up food prices, exacerbating hunger in many parts of the world because poor people can no longer afford to buy food.

Ethical concerns

Commerzbank appeared to be embarrassed by the reaction and was not available for comment.

"It seems Commerzbank is trying to avoid alienating clients who still want to invest in that field," Foodwatch's Martin Rücker told DW. "That's why the bank doesn't want to boast its decision."

Foodwatch, on the other hand, is interested in pointing out banks that, as a precaution, discontinue a business segment.

Two other banks, Dekabank - the central asset manager of Germany's savings banks - and Landesbank Baden-Württemberg (LBBW), have also stopped offering food-related investments.

"We are reacting to the public debate on whether investment in food is ethically justifiable," a spokesman for LBBW told DW.

Investing in commodities can be a lucrative business. As the world population continues to grow, so too does demand for food. In addition, more farmland is needed to grow plants for biofuels that are meant to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions but take up large agricultural areas that could be planted to feed people.

Poor harvests mean higher prices

The extreme drought in the United States has also pushed up prices. The price of soy has increased by 30 percent since June, the price of corn by 50 percent. The United States is the world's most important exporter of both products. Due to light monsoon rains this year, India has also been affected by decimated crops. Such price increases can have devastating effects on the world's poor.

"In the world's poorest countries, people have to spend 80 percent or more of their income for food," Rücker said. "Even the smallest price hike means people can no longer afford to buy their staples."

traders at the Chicago Board of Trade (ddp images/AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Traders at the Chicago Board of trade, the world's oldest futures exchangeImage: AP

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said its food price index jumped 6 percent in July to a mark higher than the food crisis in 2008, which led to violent protests and unrest in more than 30 countries. Ever since, banks and other financial investors have stood accused of pushing food prices even further with food-related investments.

"We figure that speculation is to blame for about 15 percent of price hikes in foods," Rafael Schneider of Germany's Welthungerhilfe aid organization told DW.

The degree to which speculation can be linked to food prices is a controversial issue among experts - which his why Deutsche Bank has not yet quit investment in commodities markets. In March, the bank merely announced it would not offer new investment products in this sector in 2012, but would continue to manage existing funds.

Deutsche Bank task force

Germany's largest bank has set up a work group to study the correlation between investment in speculation on commodities and the rise in food prices; a decision is expected at the end of the year.

Why wait so long, wondered Foodwatch's Rücker: "If you question whether you might be doing harm with your products - and we're talking here about physical harm to human beings - then you have to be proactive and say: we're quitting until the opposite has been proven, that is the products' inoffensiveness."

Deutsche Bank was not available for an interview. The bank, however, commented that it is watching the food scarcity "with concern." Deutsche Bank said soaring food prices are a "consequence of higher demand" due largely to a growing global population, changes in eating habits and the production of biofuels.

Other investors appear to share that view, and continue to speculate on commodities' prices. According to figures presented by the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission, market speculators are in the majority at the leading commodities futures exchanges. Only about 20 percent to 25 percent of futures trading takes into account secure prices for food producers, traders and buyers. Everything else is speculation.

G20 emergency summit

As a reaction to the last food crisis, the G20 states last year instituted a Rapid Response Forum, and France has already announced talks on possibly convening the Forum's first meeting in September.

"The emergency summit must make sure trade continues," Joachim von Braun, head of the Center for Development Research at Bonn University.

"During the 2008 food price crisis, many countries stopped their food exports," the agricultural economist told DW and added that was a major problem for countries dependent on food imports. "That must not happen again - thus, a political dialogue is urgently needed."