Land Grabbers: The Price of Food

Author Fred Pearce discovers what’s really behind the fluctuating price tags on some of our favorite foods.

| August 2012

  • Land Grabbers Cover
    “The Land Grabbers” is a first-of-its-kind expose that looks at how a growing fear over international food shortages, and the over-financialization of the stock market, has resulted in competitive and often abusive land grabbing practices.
    Cover Courtesy Beacon Press
  • Corn-Tortillas
    They first noticed the food price bubble in early 2007 in Mexico. The price of tortillas, the staple food of the Mexican poor, quadrupled in two months. Around seventy thousand Mexicans marched through the capital in protest, waving the corn flatbreads as they went. Angry mobs of housewives besieged President Felipe Calderón.
    Photo By Fotolia/Hector Fernandez

  • Land Grabbers Cover
  • Corn-Tortillas

In The Land Grabbers (Beacon Press, 2012), Fred Pearce travels across the globe to investigate the growing trend of land grabbing, detailing how foreign investors are purchasing or leasing substantial plots of land in developing countries in order to produce and secure goods (such as food and biofuels) for their own uses. In doing so, Pearce uncovers some of the most profound ethical, environmental, economic, and social issues in the world today. This book explores how the world’s richest countries, corporations, and individuals are buying up our hungry, crowded world. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Chicago, U.S.A.: The Price of Food.” 

In the visitors’ center of the Chicago Board of Trade, you can play the markets. Nominate yourself as a trader, and for two minutes you buy and sell a commodity. Mine was timber, but it could as well have been corn, pork bellies, or soy. The idea is to make your trades, as a moving graph on the display in front of you rolls out price changes, in response to news headlines broadcast from a speaker.

I was mesmerized. I didn’t give a thought to the logged landscapes and dislocated lives I was causing as I bought and sold. I didn’t even listen much to the news of bumper harvests, consumer booms, or natural disasters. I only knew dimly how these events might influence prices. It was the chase I loved. I just looked at the price graph. I bought as prices bounced off a bottom and looked like they were recovering. I sold as they came off a peak. It worked. After my two minutes of trading, the screen said I had come out $180 up. I felt like a successful speculator.

The Chicago Board of Trade’s 600-foot-tall art deco building at the foot of LaSalle Street, with its marble floors and gleaming mirrors, is a monument to markets and what they can achieve. Before playing the trading game, I had been reading the PR. Since its establishment in 1848 to serve the prairies of the American Midwest, the institution has been the world’s premier trading house for corn and the other grains that feed the world. This is where they invented the futures market. In 1851, the first “forward contract” for 3,000 bushels of corn was made. The idea was to allow farmers to sell their crops ahead of time, ensuring their income whatever the weather. The forward contracts also gave them collateral to invest in seeds, fertilizer, or equipment.

CBOT prospered. It had the largest trading floor in the world, covering 60,000 square feet. Ticker tape was invented here to speed news of price changes around the world. The first skyscrapers were built in Chicago in the 1880s, and ticker-tape parades were held in the LaSalle Street “canyon.” Overseeing it all today is a 30-foot aluminum statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain crops, perched on the roof of the CBOT building, waving a sheaf of wheat and a bag of corn.

Some trades, like rye and potato futures, have disappeared. Others, like soybeans and ethanol, have replaced them. CBOT has a derivatives exchange, where they even buy and sell weather futures. On the trading floor, boards with chalked-up prices have been replaced by electronic flashing numbers in red and yellow and green. The traditional hand signals of the traders (palms out for sellers and palms in for buyers) are augmented, but not replaced, by headsets and microphones.

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