A giant pool of money flows into global agriculture

As part of its interesting Food Chain series, the New York Times writes Food Is Gold, So Billions Invested in Farming about how investment funds are pouring billions of dollars into agriculture. One investment bank has estimated that investments in agricultural commodities has increased over 3X, from $70 billion at the start of 2006 to $235 billion in April of 2008, with roughly half of this growth being due to appreciation and half to new investment (for more details see Financial Times on agricultural funds and why food prices are rising?). However, money is now moving from investments in commodity futures into actual agricultural infrastructure:

Huge investment funds have already poured hundreds of billions of dollars into booming financial markets for commodities like wheat, corn and soybeans. But a few big private investors are starting to make bolder and longer-term bets that the world’s need for food will greatly increase — by buying farmland, fertilizer, grain elevators and shipping equipment.

Part of the article is reminiscent of the TechnoGarden scenario of the MA, in which rich companies invest in the underdeveloped African agriculture infrastructure. The article states:

Emergent is raising $450 million to $750 million to invest in farmland in sub-Saharan Africa, where it plans to consolidate small plots into more productive holdings and introduce better equipment. Emergent also plans to provide clinics and schools for local labor.

One crop and a source of fuel for farming operations will be jatropha, an oil-seed plant useful for biofuels that is grown in sandy soil unsuitable for food production, Ms. Payne said.

“We are getting strong response from institutional investors — pensions, insurance companies, endowments, some sovereign wealth funds,” she said.

The fund chose Africa because “land values are very, very inexpensive, compared to other agriculture-based economies,” she said. “Its microclimates are enticing, allowing a range of different crops. There’s accessible labor. And there’s good logistics — wide open roads, good truck transport, sea transport.”

However, unlike the TechnoGarden scenario, this investment seems focussed on increasing yields of food and fuel, rather than producing multiple ecosystem services. Consequently, such investments attempts to increase yields by practicing intensive agriculture are likely to lead to negative impacts on other people and ecosystems using water, and potentially leading to local or regional ecological regime shifts (see our paper Gordon et al 2008).

Also, many of these investments are not aimed at increasing agricultural yield on the ground, but hedging against inflation risk, and providing market power for large funds to leverage investments in other financial instruments, such as options, derivatives and other more complicated packages. This coupling of financial markets, to the already coupled food, fuel, and climate systems means that the systemic consequences of these investments are likely to be unexpected and novel.

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