The debate about food commodity speculation began when prices for staple foods rocketed in 2007. Maize prices in Ethiopia rose by almost 200 percent between June 2007 and June 2008, while the price of wheat shot up by almost 300 percent in Somalia and 90 percent in Sudan. This hyperinflation of the prices of basic foodstuffs prompted demonstrations in countries around the world.
Any attempt to get to the bottom of the problem inevitably leads to discussion about food speculation. Non-governmental organizations like Foodwatch, Oxfam, or Weed (World Economy, Ecology and Development) say financial players bear a large part of the blame for the food crisis, and that banks and hedge funds are investing large sums of money in foodstuffs with the intention of making big profits.
"Investment funds are constantly influencing prices on the international market. In recent years, they've increased in volume by around 100 billion US dollars," explains David Hachfeld, a special advisor on trade policy with Oxfam in Germany. In this way, he says, they influence the price of foodstuffs and are able to drive them up.
Are speculators really to blame?
However, researchers at the University of Halle-Wittenberg have contradicted this. They analyzed ten scientific articles and 25 studies published between 2010 and 2012 and came to the conclusion that financial speculation is not the cause of high food prices.
"The financial speculation is a sideshow. We need to tackle the really important issues," says Ingo Pies, an expert in business ethics and a co-author of the evaluation. The most important of these, he says, are avoiding political mistakes, promoting markets, and speeding up the transfer of technology.
These conclusions have been repudiated by non-governmental organizations. Many NGO representatives are accusing the researchers of taking an unscientific approach and failing to include other relevant studies.
"They only actually mentioned studies that fit in with their argument," says Markus Henn of Weed. He claims that where studies supported their approach the researchers simply included them, while others were subjected to detailed criticism.
So the debate about how much influence stock exchange investors have over the futures market for agricultural commodities is itself influenced by the literature one selects - and here the authors of the evaluation and the NGOs are not on the same wavelength.
Ingo Pies from the University of Halle-Wittenberg's responds to the criticism by stating that "these organizations have also presented studies of their own which are not based on scientific literature, but rather refer to literature produced by non-scientists."
The price of improved living standards
The authors of the new study insist that the results are clear: Financial speculation on the futures market alone cannot be held responsible for the rise in prices in agricultural commodities. There were, they say, other key contributing factors.
"People nowadays eat better than they used to. In particular, they can also afford to eat meat. That results in a big increase in the demand for agricultural goods," explains Ingo Pies. This, he says, is a structural factor which has been clearly observable over the past ten years and will continue to affect the markets in future.
Other institutions, such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) support this thesis, at least in part. On one hand, they acknowledge that there has been a sharp increase in speculation with arable land since the financial crisis of 2008. However, they do not believe that financial speculation is the cause of the rise in prices.
"This kind of financial speculation, the kind we are seeing now, may to some extent have an effect on price fluctuations, but it doesn't explain the long-term rise in prices," says Carmel Cahill, senior counselor in the OECD's Trade and Agriculture Directorate.
Price increases for basic foodstuffs
Michael Brüntrup of the German Institute for Development Policy has also been following the discussion about food speculation. He has read the research done by the University of Halle-Wittenberg, and believes we should adopt a nuanced view.
"The problem with studies like these is that there are many different factors affecting prices," he says. "For example, we saw price fluctuations because of the failure of harvests in the United States, Russia or Australia." Brüntrup adds that it is extremely difficult to extrapolate precisely how much speculation affected the prices.
The debate is growing more heated, while food prices continue to rise around the world. According to the OECD, the price of basic foodstuffs such as corn, rice and wheat will keep on going up because populations are growing. In many West African countries, wheat is the product that is most affected.
"We are currently experiencing something like an 80 percent rise in the price of wheat, which of course also affects the price of bread," says Momar Ndao, the president of a consumer organization in Senegal.
Pierre Nacoulma, from a similar organization in Burkina Faso, confirms this: "We recently had a problem because bakers went on strike because of the rise in the price of wheat."
With prices for staple foods rising so sharply, people can afford less and less of them, and hunger is increasingly widespread.
EU to consult on food speculation
One thing is clear: a solution must be found. The big question is where to start. The NGOs want to get banks and other financial players to stop speculating on food commodities. Other institutions believe the solution is to be found in combating urgent problems like climate change and land grabbing.
Early next year, the EU intends to implement new rules for the agricultural markets. On December 18, the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development discussed recommendations for the Commission. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Paolo de Castro, the chair of the committee, said: "We certainly need to combat the speculation. But we should not forget that the real cause of instability on the agricultural market is strongly linked to the discrepancy between supply and demand."