Global agriculture between hunger and profit | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 21.01.2013
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Global agriculture between hunger and profit

Feeding a growing world population seems impossible without major investment in global agriculture. But a symposium at the Green Week food fair has found that plans to curb hunger often clash with big business.

One of the most prominent participants in the panel discussion was Jürgen Fitschen, who, with Anshu Jain, is one of the two Chief Executives of Germany's Deutsche Bank. For Europe's biggest private bank, agricultural commodities are a growth market.

Fitschen announced at the gathering that the bank's board had decided to resume trading in so-called Exchange Traded Index Funds (ETF) based on agricultural commodities, reversing a ban on food speculation imposed by the bank last year. An internal review had found no apparent link between speculative food-based financial products and fluctuating global food prices, he said.

"Although it cannot be completely ruled out that price volatility is enhanced under certain market conditions, we've found that prices also fluctuate in the absence of this type of financial product," he claimed.

Capital-intensive agriculture

In addition to dealing in financial derivatives trading in foodstuffs, Deutsche Bank, as a global player in financial markets, also offers direct investments in agriculture, food trading and production. Just recently, the bank created a new investment fund worth $135 million (101 million euros) aimed at lending money to farmers in Africa. The fund is supported by Germany's development ministry.

Capital investments in agriculture were a prerequisite for safeguarding food production in future, Fitschen noted, adding, however, that any lending to this sector needed to be based on rational facts rather than guided by emotions.

"This means that investors want to have a decent return on their capital," he said.

However, Fitschen's position was vehemently opposed by Bärbel Diekmann, President of the German non-governmental Agro-Action pressure group, who also participated in the Green Week symposium.

Watch video 02:21

Global food prices seen rising again

She argued that price spikes in critical situations had contributed to epidemic hunger in various countries, and provided ample reason to become emotional. Big investors would often fail to invest in small-scale agriculture in spite of that fact that millions of people, including many children, remained undernourished, she said.

Investment role model

Investments which expropriated the land of small farmers for the sake of export earnings, Diekmann added, wouldn't advance food production but remained a profit-driven big business. She cited Swiss-based food conglomerate Nestlé as an example of a company which was trying to do things differently. In efforts to double sales of its coffee-based products over the next decade, Nestlé was spending 500 million euros to boost the productivity of its 650,000 local coffee suppliers worldwide.

For Nestlé, business interests and the advancement of small coffee farmers went hand in hand, said Nestlé's board director Peter Brabeck-Letmathe during the discussions. Nestlé had provided farmers with about 220 million new coffee plants, which Brabeck-Letmathe described as an investment in better quality and higher yields, based on using less water.

jürgen Fitschen

Fitschen's bank was criticised for resuming food speculation

Nestlé's example is in line with demands made by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for boosting investment in sustainable agriculture in developing countries. FAO estimated that about $83 billion would need to be spent on farming and rural development every year to secure food production for the 9 billion people who are expected to be living on this planet by 2050. Currently the average third-world farmer puts 114 euros a year into improving production. That's not enough and completely leaves out the costs of necessary improvements in infrastructure as well as market development, education and research into better crops.

Mozambiquestands out

The speakers at the meeting agreed that Mozambique was a remarkable example of a country which had made huge strides in agricultural development in recent years after having been dependant on food imports until about ten years ago.

"Today, Mozambique is an exporter of sugar, cotton, cashew nuts, maize and bananas," the country's agriculture minister Jose Condungua Pacheco told the symposium. Land was state-owned, he added, and foreign investors are only allowed to use arable land for a limited period of time. In addition, investors must negotiate contracts for land use with local communities and employ local workers.

"In this private-public partnership the power of local communities is strengthened because investors seeking to use farmland must negotiate with the people living there," Pacheco said.

Deutsche Bank's Jürgen Fitschen was strongly critical of such investment conditions. He said foreign investors must be allowed to hold majority stakes in farms, and that crops must be allowed to be sold on global markets if agriculture was really to move forward.

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