Views on commodities and energy
from Tales from the Trail:
While the financial bailouts tossed to automakers, banks and other groups during the recent economic crisis left a funny taste in the mouth of some Americans, one former U.S. regulator hopes efforts to prevent another panic doesn't go rotten.
The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission is immersed in drafting dozens of rules to assist it in increasing oversight of the once opaque over-the-counter derivatives market, widely blamed for exacerbating the recent financial crisis.
Among the rules it must craft is what the definition of an agricultural commodity is? Of course, corn, cotton, soybeans and livestock, among other items, fall into this realm.
But what about those "other foods" such as brussels sprouts, artichokes, cauliflower, or anything with curry? A former CFTC chairman says they are "abhorrent to American sensibilities" and should be banned.
from Global News Journal:
Russia’s ban on grain exports as a heat wave parches crops in the world’s third biggest wheat exporter has raised questions whether such export curbs break World Trade Organization rules. Russia is not a member of the WTO, and it remains to be seen how its new grain policy will affect its 17-year-old bid to join. But other grain exporters, such as Ukraine, which is also considering export curbs, are part of the global trade referee.
WTO rules are quite clear that members cannot interfere with imports and exports in a way that disrupts trade or discriminates against other members. But in practice most WTO rules aim to stop countries blocking imports – shutting out competitor’s goods to give their own domestic producers an unfair advantage.
Recently I received an email asking me to explain why commodities are risky assets. ”I would think energy and raw
materials would still be in demand, even if Dubai defaults,” the writer said.
It’s a good point. People need to eat, drink, drive and live. They can’t do it without commodities.
from Route to Recovery:
If you head east to El Centro from San Diego, Interstate 8 takes you through arid scenery, climbing to 4,000 feet through barren mountains so fast that your ears pop. Then comes the oasis.
As you head down rapidly out of the mountains once more toward El Centro you hit a sign that tells you that you have reached sea level. Green fields and palm trees, stacks of hay drying in the fierce sun -- 90 degrees Fahrenheit even in November -- surrounded on all sides by rocky hills and the desert.
The world needs to spend $83 billion a year to ensure it can produce enough food amid a changing climate for its growing population by 2050, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates.
Rich countries have pledged more than $22 billion over three years to help small, impoverished farmers grow and sell more by investing in seeds, fertilizer, roads and marketing infrastructure.
Philanthropists have thrown their weight behind the goal. Bill Gates challenged research companies last week to make new technologies available to small farmers without charging them royalties. (Click on the link at the bottom to see his full speech to the World Food Prize forum.)
Corporations have said they see themselves as part of the fight too, particularly when it comes to research. But Robert Thompson, a former World Bank official, says he’s pessimistic the private sector will be able to contribute enough. “Their shareholders won’t stand for them solving all the problems of the developing countries, and giving it away,” he told Reuters.
“It’s going to take subsidies or at least a public sector contribution to engage their research horsepower,” said Thompson, now an agriculture professor with the University of Illinois, who has pushed for more spending on agricultural development for 40 years.
Agribusiness should be motivated to get involved in developing countries because they represent a future growth market for their products, Thompson said. “They should be willing to accept lower return on their own investments as an investment in the longer term, but we have to keep the short time horizon of the U.S. investment community in mind,” he said.
“Shareholders are brutal on companies that don’t meet their short-term profit expectations. In that sense, perhaps some of the European companies like Syngenta, BASF or Bayer … may have a little more license, if you will, to take a longer-term perspective than some of the U.S. publicly traded companies.”
The Becker-Posner Blog has an interesting debate posted on the question of food shortages and their accompanying price rises. As usual, it is a to-and-fro between economist and Nobel laureate Gary Becker and his University of Chicago colleague Richard Posner, a U.S. appellate judge.
Becker reckons that some commodity prices will rise as the global economy recovers but that food is different.
On the congressional scale of measurement, Blanche Lincoln got a plum of a birthday present — the gavel as Senate committee chairman. She is the first woman to head the Agriculture Committee. Amid the congratulatory banter on Sept 30, Lincoln’s 49th birthday, were reminders of the enduring power of its members, past and present.
As Lincoln noted, her committee includes the chairmen of four other committees — Budget, Judiciary, Finance and Health. It is a higher number of sitting chairmen than most Senate committees and allows a useful melding of interests.
It seems if you got a problem in Washington today, you need a Czar to take care of it. And now some powerful U.S. senators believe the agriculture sector should get one to sharpen efforts to feed the world’s poor.
Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told lawmakers on Tuesday that too often agriculture takes a back seat to other “sexier” issues in policymaking, but it must be a priority if the country hopes to address global hunger and malnutrition.
“It is not a secondary factor,” Glickman said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator Dick Lugar, the Republican leader of the committee, supported appointing a White House food coordinator to take on raising agriculture and food aid’s prominence.
This “food czar” would be tasked with coordinating efforts between the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies involved in food aid and agriculture production.
The need for a food czar doesn’t seem as far stretched when considering recent events that have nudged agriculture over into the realm of a national security issue.
Soaring food prices last year sparked food riots and led to political instability in some parts of the world. The threat of violence and coups continues as the recession makes it increasingly difficult for even more people to buy food.
A food czar could possibly mitigate future riots by improving the United States’ role in making other nations self-sufficient in agricultural production, an area some say the country has failed in.
In fact, U.S. efforts to address the long-term challenge of persistant malnutrition earn an ‘F,’ according to political science professor and author Robert Paarlberg.
He said U.S. agriculture assistance to Africa has plummeted 85 percent since the 1980s. “So as things have been getting steadily worse in Africa, the United States goverment has curiously been doing steadily less,” Paarlberg said.
A food czar, Lugar said, would have the difficult job of addressing this conundrum.
Photo Credit: Reuters/Luc Gnago (Farmers in Cote d’Ivoire work on a rice field); Reuters/Alberto Lowe (Riot police clash with Panamanians over food prices in Panama City); Reuters/Margaret Aguirre (A child in Ethiopia is severely malnourished due to widespread starvation brought on by drought and soaring food prices)
from Jasmin Melvin:
It may have been preaching to the converted but the world's largest agrochemicals company came to the 2009 Outlook Forum to hold forth on the benefits of technology for farmers, and not just on genetially modified technologies.
Michael Mack, CEO of Zurich-based Syngenta International AG told attendees that advanced technologies and a little education will be necessary to feed the world, but maintained such innovations aren't years or even decades away -- they're already here.
More than 850 million people face starvation each day under current conditions, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, yet many nations do not fully utilize existing technologies to maximize their harvests.
"We can realize significant yield potential in the next 10 years by simply deploying existing technology across land that is currently under cultivation," Mack said.
Mack noted that places such as Russia and Ukraine, once considered the breadbasket of Europe, farm only 10 percent of their land efficiently, while Asia could boost its productivity by 20 percent within seven to 10 years by adopting modern farming methods.
Simply put, technology would allow us to do more with less, a phenomenon that will become even more significant as the world's population grows by an expected 2 billion people by 2030.
"This means that there are not only more mouths to feed but they will all be demanding a bigger and better diet," Mack said, which will require a doubling of feed and food production.
Technologies as simple as fertilizers and pesticides boost crop yields but costs and lack of education on their use often result in them being left out of farming in developing countries.
The International Plant Nutrition Institute, a not-for-profit agronomic education and research group, says on its Web site that "somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of crop yield in the U.S. is attributable to nutrient inputs."
And Mack noted, "It's a fact without current crop protection products there would be 40 percent less food available in the world."
Syngenta has seen sales of its crop protection products increase in recent years.
Selective herbicides, which target specific weeds and are Syngenta's most profitabe crop protection product, saw sales increase by 8 percent to $2 billion for the company in 2007.
Mack also spoke about more controversial technologies, like genetically modified seeds, which are strongly opposed by some environmental groups. He praised American policy and regulations on GMO crops and expressed hope that other countries would follow.
"If we embrace science, we can have a future of bounty," Mack said.