Zero Hunger

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Food Commodity Market: History and Impact of Food Trading Toward SDG2

  • Michele F. FontefrancescoEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69626-3_13-1

Synonyms

Definition

Food commodity markets are socioeconomic institutions, often located in specific geographical places. They are specialized in the exchange of agricultural products, such as staple crops (e.g., grains), animals (e.g., poultry), and animal products (e.g., butter). The exchanges are completed through financial transactions, such as futures contracts and options contracts.

Introduction

Food commodity markets are socioeconomic institutions that “encompass specific social, legal, and political processes that enable economic transactions, but also extend far beyond them” (Bestor 2001, p. 9227). After 2009 financial market crisis, which also impacted and created instability on food price trends on a global level, the public debate started looking at how the market of food products had been structured and strongly financialized. International institutions, such as FAO (2018b), pointed out at the risks that its present configuration shows, claiming for reforms. In this debate, though, often the food commodity market was described as a recent turn in human history. However, it is not.

This entry highlights the historicity of food commodity market, tracing its development from the early forms of markets, in Mesopotamia, to the more recent configuration dominated by international commodity exchanges, such as the Chicago Stock Exchange. The entry points out the cultural process that made food to be one of the first commodity and to the fragilities that affect modern markets. Considering the theme of production standardization, which is often ascribed as a direct effect of the creation of a global food commodity market, the entry reframes the claim on the basis of the research conducted in Kenya between 2018 and 2019, part of the project “Sistemi Alimentari per lo Sviluppo Sostenibili” funded by the Italian Ministry of Education. It concludes by considering the SDG2 and the necessary reforms the market should undergo to achieve Zero Hunger.

Food Commodification in the Early Markets

The contemporary food commodity market is a modern result of the integration of the activities of traditional food markets in which goods were exchanged, through barter or with the use of money (Bintliff 2002; Wengrow 2008).

In the West, the early markets in which food goods were traded are documented in the Middle East around 5.000 B.C. Archaeological findings attest the use of sophisticated models of accounting used to classify and record goods (Crump 1990). Although we lack information that provide full details on the everyday dimension of those early markets, the early records, such as the Babylonian tablets, offer elements to understand the foodscape of these early markets and provide evidence of the mathematical knowledge applied for running the exchanges (Friberg 2007). They, hence, show the centrality of food commodities in the early forms of commerce. A visual example of such prominence is provided by the Standard of Ur, a wooden box inlaid with mosaic, found at the royal cemetery of Ur, in Iraq in the early twentieth century. It represents the city ruler running a flourishing economy, portrayed through the procession of farmers taking their tribute of products, like fish, sheep, goats, and oxen, to the king (Collins 2015). This procession, which illustrates the movement of the people from the countryside to the city of Ur, suggests markets rose inside the urban space to meet the ancient, entropic cities’ (Algaze 2018) needs of raw materials and other commodities, otherwise impossible to produce in the walled and confined space of the urban areas (Bintliff 2002). Food had a central spot on this stage.

We can imagine the early food markets as networks that connected a city with the neighboring rural settlements. From them, the city procured most of the ingredients and staple food. Food, though, could have also come from afar, from other cities located far away and carried by traders, and nomadic people, who moved and lived outside the city (Khazanov 1994). All these markets developed accordingly with a principle of redistribution that moved surplus products and labor into and out of the market centers (Polanyi 2001).

Money was not the key protagonist of this commerce. Rather, livestock and crops were used as a unit of exchange (Geva 1987; Rollinger et al. 2004). Starting from the second millennium B.C., the historical and archaeological sources attest to the presence of a widening commercial network and a growing primacy of money in the trading activities. Ports, as well as the largest cities in the inland, turned into the key commercial hubs (Bintliff 2002). Their economic activities were mostly based on the direct trades of goods, taken to the market place and there put up for auction, in the same ways in which, still today, fish is sold wholesale in places such as the famous Tsukiji Market of Tokyo, the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world (Bestor 2004).

Around 2000 B.C. the early forms of futures contracts and options contracts appeared. They are legal and financial tools at the basis of modern commodity markets and widely used at the present. Futures contracts are binding forms of binding agreements between two parties that oblige, on the one hand, the producer to delivery of a precise quantity of the goods, which respect a minimum quality standard agreed by the parties, when the futures contract ends, and on the other the buyer to buy the goods to a price determined by the contract. Options contracts are binding agreements between two parties that give the buyer of the option the right to buy or sell an asset at a later date at an agreed upon price.

Some of the earliest documentary evidence of futures contracts is in the Hammurabi Code, dated approximately 1750 BC. Its 49th article recites:

If a man obtain money from a merchant and give (as security) to the merchant a field to be planted with grain and sesame (and) say to him: ‘Cultivate the field, and take to thyself the grain and sesame which is produced;’ if the tenant raise grain and sesame in the field, at the time of harvest, the owner of the field shall receive the grain and sesame which is in the field and he shall give to the merchant grain for the loan which he had obtained from him and for the interest and for the maintenance of the tenant. (Harper 1994, p. 29)

Another example is presented by Aristotle, in his Politics, when he presents the anecdote of Thales the Milesian and his financial device (Jowett 1999, p. 18):

According to the story, [Thales] knew by his skill in the stars while it was yet winter that there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year; so, having a little money, he gave deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletus, which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest-time came, and many were wanted all at once and of a sudden, he let them out at any rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money. Thus, he showed the world that philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort.

These examples show the advent of an economic understanding that relates trade, products, ownership, use of the means of production, labor, and time together with exchange value and then money. At the same time, they show the creation of normative thinking that used laws and jurisprudence to norm this relationship (Petino 1989, pp. 43–102).

Although it is often related to the onset of industrialization (Gudeman 2005; Hann and Hart 2009), it is in this context that the cultural revolution that underpins the concept of commodity occurred. A commodity is any product (or a service) that has complete fungibility and derives its value from the profit it can generate once traded in the market. Moreover, as pointed out by Gregory (1982, pp. 110–111) “commodity exchange is an exchange of alienable objects between people who are in a state of reciprocal independence that establishes a quantitative relationship between the objects exchanged.”

This understanding is part of the classical philosophical thought, and in particular on it, Aristotle draws in his famous distinction between commodity and money on the basis that “any article, except for money, may be used either as ‘the thing itself,’ or for exchange, only the former being ‘the proper use of the article.’ Money, on the other hand, ‘was intended to be a means of exchange’ alone” (Geva 1987, p. 120). It, however, requires a particular form of cultural development which has people to recognize, in first place, the existence of the market as a distinguished sphere of exchange (Bohannan 1955; Sillitoe 2006) and then the value of an item on the basis of its potential role in an exchange happening in the market. In this respect, already the ancient world experiences processes of commodification. From cereals to oil and wine, food products were the key commodities, at the center of the markets of antiquities (Schiavone 1999). The development of Roman law shows this centrality and the evolution of the different forms of contracts and commercial methods that involved food {Fino, 2018 #14228}, which confirm the use and establishment of the perception of food as a commodity.

The Raise of Commodity Exchanges and Their Impact

Since antiquity, food has been a commodity at the center of economy, dominating the commercial landscape with its materiality and diversity. Until the medieval times, food commerce, in particular, the one of grain and other staple food, was scarcely affected by forms of virtualization or abstraction {Carrier, 1998 #14247}. Commodities were traded in the marketplace (Cipolla 1974). Markets were held periodically, commonly once or twice in a year or commonly before and after the harvest season. They were often associated with religious festivals which culminated in community feasts (Cipolla 1974; Di Francesco 2013; Fontefrancesco 2018a; Grimaldi 1993; Le Goff 1988). Large and small communities found in their markets an opportunity for trading their crops and get access to exotic products, such as spices (Freedman 2008), potteries, or cloths usually not produced or traded by local craftsmen. Forms of futures and options contracts were still used, in particular by merchant banks and Jewish traders which played a role both in financing and insuring other economic activities (Braudel 1977; O’Sullivan 1962).

The birth of modern food commodity market is linked with further development in the cultural perception of the value of a product. Famously, Marx (1867) refers to the result of this change as commodity fetishism, which is a form of social selective attention which leads people to understand the value of a product only on the basis of its exchange value and overlook other aspects concerning the cultural biography of the thing (Kopytoff 1986), namely, the labor needed for its creation. Marx theories, despite their applicability, offer important insight into the anthropological transformation occurred in the past five centuries. In a new epoch of production serialization (Greenhalgh 1997), the value of a commodity was embedded in a new regime of meaning (Barthes 1977) having its fungibility, i.e., marketability, being separated from the commodity very own presence and existence. The main theaters in which this transformation occured were the new commodity exchanges.

The first modern exchange was the one of Amsterdam opened in 1602 (Braudel 1972). The new exchanges mark a progressive shift in the interest of the investors from the actual goods to the financial speculation based on the trading of futures contracts and options for profiting from the volatile price movements, as in the case of the tulip market, which crashed in 1637 (Thompson 2007). During the early modern age, new stock markets were established in Europe and, in other, non-Western countries, as in the case of Dōjima Rice Exchange of Osaka, established in 1697 and for about 250 years was the central place for rice market in Japan (Poitras 2000; Schaede 1989).

The institution of the modern exchanges marks the emergence of market society (Hann and Hart 2009) and paved the way to the rise of “the great transformation” (Polanyi 2001) that occurred between the end of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century. The term “great transformation” invented by Polanyi refers to the transition of economic practices from a model based on the principles of redistribution, reciprocity, and householding to a new one based on the primacy of private property and free trade (Hann and Hart 2009; Spyridakis 2018).

This new understanding affected also the perception of food and the ways of their commerce. In particular, on one hand, it broke the strong relationship that linked food products with the places of production and their producers, hiding those relations beyond the instrumental approach. On the other, it facilitates the expansion of a new, speculative market based on the exchange of futures and options contracts which driven the opening of new, specialized commodity exchanges. One of the most known examples of such markets is the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. It was established in 1898 as the Chicago Butter and Egg Board. In the course of the years, it expanded its reach, and in 1919, the Board changed its name and expanded its scope in order to market other food and nonfood commodities. Today hundreds of food products are traded by the Exchange, which is one of the largest in the world.

The creation of these new commodity exchanges, the largest of which are in the United States, Japan, and China, at the end of the nineteenth century, and therefore their expansion from the first decades of the twentieth century, marked the beginning of a new phase in the food trade. The last century met a rapid and steady integration of the markets on a global level (Haugerud et al. 2000; Sassen 1998). The market developed in a global network in which these large exchanges are the central hubs, places of fast economic innovation where the global macro-trends are defined, while on the fringe of the network, smaller commodity exchanges trade the products locally produced.

This process of global market integration led, from the end of World War II, to 50 years of progressive commodity price reduction and to an intensification of agricultural activities and food production (FAO 2011, pp. 11–20). From 1970 to the early 2000s, the market showed steady growth and a limited volatility (Eitenne et al. 2014). However, since 2003, volatility has increased raising preoccupation among professionals and the general public for its possible direct consequences of food shortage and famine (Magdoff 2012).

The volatility is just one index (Short 2007) of the main weaknesses that affect the present global food commodity market. First of all, the volatility appears a consequence of actions moved on the international market for speculation and portfolio diversification (European Commission 2009). However, it appears strongly linked with ongoing environmental and socioeconomic transformations that are affecting not just developing countries. FAO (2011, p. 11) listed some of them, such as:
  • Weather shocks, such as drought in Australia (2005–07) that reduced wheat production and trade [...].

  • longer-term economic growth in several large developing countries that (a) put upward pressure on prices for petroleum and fertilizer because of the resource-intensive nature of their economic growth and (b) led to increased demand for meat, and hence animal

  • feed, as diets diversified;

  • rising production costs (e.g. irrigation pumps, machinery) and transport costs as a result of higher

  • prices for petroleum and fertilizer;

  • slower growth of cereal yields (and production), especially those of rice and wheat, during the past 20 years as a result of low investment over the previous three decades

In addition to these, the progressive growth of the world population, estimated to exceed nine billion in 2040, in the face of the progressive abandonment of the rural areas as well as the worsening of the climatic conditions dictated by the global warming are deeply affecting the market and its future (FAO 2018a, 2018b). In particular climate change is having significant implications for agriculture and food security: higher average temperatures, changes in precipitation, rising sea levels, an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, as well as the possibility of an increase in damage from pests and disease [undermine] crop and livestock production, as well as fisheries and aquaculture” (FAO 2018a, p. xii). Thus, the intertwining effects of these financial, environmental, and social factors ask for a critical analysis of the market, its future development, and its present and future effective efficiency.

Food Market and Production Standardization: A Case Study

The global integration of food commodity markets, their financialization, as well as the rapid change in environmental conditions at a global level pose serious questions about the possibilities of further economic growth and its possible consequences. In particular, a strong link between the volatility of the market and an increase in food precariousness especially in developing countries appears more and more cogent (Food Security Information Network 2019). On another side, the emergence of a global food commodity market has been often pointed out as a direct cause for the loss of local biodiversity. In the past decades, scholars, journalists, and activists pointed out the risk connected to grassroots production standardization brought by the market, in particular, due to the imposition of seeds and cultivation by large players of the global market to local producers (Shiva 2007). Particularly exposed to the pressure would be small farmers, for their weak position in the market. This understanding, however, lays on an oversimplification of the actual dynamics that characterize the participation of small farmers to the market. It emerged during the research conducted in Nakuru County in Kenya between 2018 and 2019 focused on small farmers, their practices of production and their interaction and participation in the market.

The Nakuru County is located in the central portion of the Rift Valley between longitude 35′28″ and 35′36″ and latitude N 0′12″ and S 1′10″. It covers an area of 7.496 km2 at an average elevation of 2100 m above sea level. Data from the 2009 census show that Nakuru County has 1,603,325 inhabitants with an average population density of 214 people per square kilometer. The rural population is estimated at 62% (Kenya 2013). Currently, the main economic activities of the county are agriculture and tourism. In particular, the agricultural sector plays a fundamental role both in provisioning food and economic resources to local people. Climate conditions are particularly favorable for large-scale agriculture, horticulture, and dairy production. Most agricultural products, including maize, wheat, and milk, are processed within the county and sold to consumers in major urban centers. Horticulture, particularly floriculture, has been the sector that has shown the highest growth and profitability rates over the last few decades. The agricultural landscape of the county is characterized by the presence of producers operating on different scales, although agricultural activities are commonly small- and medium-sized and family-based, with an estimated average area per household less than the hectare predominate (Foeken 2006). Often, as it emerged also in the research, the farms are run by women (Fontefrancesco 2018b).

If Western observers would not be surprised to notice that large agricultural enterprises are specialized in intensive farming, generally focusing on monocultural horticultural productions and flowers, they may be puzzled noticing also small farms produce only a limited array of products. Despite farmers, mostly women had a vast botanical knowledge which encompassed over 40 cultivable plants, only a few products were grown consistently by the farms: maize, beans, potatoes, collard greens, peas, black nightshade, cabbage, and spinach. In this selection, local, traditional vegetable are marginalized, while international crops have a central role. Farmers explained this specialization of production based on the easy marketability of the selected crops. Cultivating these products, they feel sure of their sale. Thus, thet have seized a source of financial income for the family which they can use to cover domestic expenses, to invest in agricultural activity, and to purchase other food products.

This datum suggests standardization is linked, first of all, to the farmers’ market participation. The standardization and limitation of production are directly linked with the structure of the consumers’ habits. They look at the market only for a limited array of stable foods (e.g., potatoes, onions, tomatoes), which are used by many different ethnic groups (Zocchi 2018). These are the crops commonly cultivated by the local small farms. People, however, do not buy for other kinds of products, such as identity food of the different ethnic gastronomies (e.g., Barstow and Zocchi 2018). Such products are procured through informal networks or self-produced at home. Thus, the very structure of the local market, which is the very habits of local communities and their ways of understanding what a market is and what it can provide (Bestor 2001), stimulates small farmers to restrict the variety of crops they cultivate (Fontefrancesco 2018b).

Furthermore, production standardization is also linked to infrastructural causes that underpin the farmers’ possibilities of market participation. They are linked with the difficult preservation of the crops after the harvest. Among the rural communities visited during the research, no household was using fridges or freezers at home. Legumes and cereals were the only products that farmers preserved, and, in general, dehydration and fermentation were not used by them for preserving food (e.g., fruits and vegetables). Thus, to cope with the economic impact of a short shelf life, farmers intensified and specialized their production, focusing on a limited number of crops.

This decision of focusing production on a few crops is, also, directly linked to the farmers’ fragmentary knowledge of the market and its possibility. The access to the market is mostly passive and subordinated to the presence of middlemen. In other words, the informants are managers of their households, but this activity does not directly develop into a form of entrepreneurship. Farmers look at the market to get the financial resources but do not nor try to control the market. The sales answer to cogent needs of their families. Money and its availability mobilize emotions and affections in the farmers. The expectations are directed to support the family, its improvement in the condition of life and social status. The interviewees highlighted their interest in increasing their profits deriving from agricultural activity. However, while farmers appeared scarcely interested in being directly involved in the market as traders and, in so doing, shortening the production chain, which is particularly long and fragmented as Musyimi (2017) indicates, they focus their effort on intensifying their agricultural production, specializing in the few productions they are sure of selling. Moreover, the interviews show a limited collaboration between neighbors and other members of the community. While we did not found forms of grassroots cooperative initiatives, cooperation is generally associated with an exchange of work at the time of harvest and to the participation in Chama or other forms of informal savings groups, confirming a social trajectory leading to farmer’ individualization, emerged over 20 years ago with the intensification of male internal migration (Francis 2002).

Overall, it emerges that the production specialization is largely linked to elements embedded in the life of the local communities and their ways of accessing to the market, as it is embedded the process that leads farmers to use specific seeds or varieties. Farmers use seeds bought from the market, while others self-produce or exchange with neighbors, relatives, and friends. The market is dominated by Kenya Seed Company, Kenya’s biggest seed company in terms of average volume of seeds traded in the last years; however, also small private seed companies, like Leldet Seeds Ltd, compete in the market. These companies sell their seeds in the markets, and through their retailers, one can find in the main town of the province. Farmers buy from them; however, they also participate in initiatives concerning seed saving. They can be local and spontaneus initiatives, such as informal systems of seed exchangesm or iother promoted by NGOs, such as the Seed Savers Network (https://seedsaverskenya.org), informal systems of seed exchanges. The selection and use of seeds, therefore, do not follow a univocal pattern, particularly among small farmers. In fact, the decision is taken navigating through and negotiating different factors, such as price, availability, and knowledge, which make the final choice an act of cognitive bricolage (Levi-Strauss 1962) aimed at accommodating their different social, cultural, and physiological needs.

The Needed Reforms the Food Commodity Market and SDG2

After the 2009 crisis and the food price spike, the FAO Food Price Index, an international index promoted by FAO that measures the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, shows a slowdown of the prices, which reached the pre-2008 crisis level in 2018 (http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex). Despite this reassuring datum, the overall fragility of the global food commodity market is clear and alarming. FAO (2018b, p. xiii) pointed out “according to available data, the number of people who suffer from hunger has been growing over the past three years, returning to levels from a decade ago. The absolute number of people in the world affected by undernourishment, or chronic food deprivation, is now estimated to have increased from around 804 million in 2016 to nearly 821 million in 2017.” In 2018, there were 113 million people in 53 countries (Food Security Information Network 2019, p. 15).

The data testify a step back on the path taken toward the achievement of the SDG Zero Hunger and point out the inefficacy of the food market in working as an effective redistribution instrument able to address the needs of the human population, although the research suggests to avoid analytical generalization in order to understand the structure and dynamics of the market.

Aiming at achieving SDG2 “Zero Hunger,” and more generally to strengthening the sustainability of the food commodity market, scholars, activists, and international institutions are promoting change in the structure of the food commodity economy. In particular, FAO (FAO 2018a, p. xii) suggests “global agricultural market integration should reinforce the adaptive role of trade in terms of the increasing availability of and access to food in the countries that will be negatively affected by climate change […]. In the short term, by moving food from surplus to deficit areas, trade can provide an important mechanism to address production shortfalls due to extreme weather events. In the long term, international trade could contribute towards adjusting agricultural production in an efficient manner across countries […]. Agriculture needs both to adjust to the effects of climate change and to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the same time, to meet growing demand, agriculture in 2050 will need to produce almost 50 percent more food, feed, and biofuel than in 2012. Producing more with less, while preserving natural resources and enhancing the livelihoods of small-scale family farmers, will be a key challenge for the future.”

Therefore, the current market structure appears unsustainable and unable to address efficiently the challenges of the next future. As we have seen, the food commodity market is the result of a long process that encompasses many millennia, a process that structured production network and shaped landscape and human relations. To consider this long history does not mean not to recognize the urgent need for reforms aimed at responding to these social and environmental imperatives that present times ask. In particular, they involve the implementation of new policies aimed at promoting a better redistribution of foodstuffs, a better redistribution of financial resources, a closer monitoring of the financialization processes of the commodity market, and a more sustainable approach in food production. These appear the main direction required for achieving the Zero Hunger in a non-distant future.

Cross-References

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Gastronomic Sciences PollenzoItaly

Section editors and affiliations

  • Mohammad Sadegh Allahyari
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Agricultural ManagementRasht Branch, Islamic Azad UniversityRashtIran