Agriculture and Finance
KeywordsAgribusiness Agricultural commodity Agricultural production Finance capital Financial markets Farming International capital
The agricultural and financial sectors have long intersected with one another in various interrelated forms. These include financing for agricultural production, financial backing for trades on agricultural commodity exchanges, as well as financial investment in agriculture-based derivatives. Within each of these forms of financial sector interaction with the agricultural sector, the roles of states and private financial investors have shifted over time. Governments have created institutions to financially support farmers, and have put in place regulations to reign in “excessive” speculation and to limit financial actors’ influence over agricultural commodity markets. In the last few decades, however, governments have removed many of the protections and institutions that supported farmers and relaxed regulations on financial actors. Today, the balance seems to rest firmly with private actors. These shifts have important implications for farmers, consumers, and the environment.
Agricultural finance refers to the provision of capital and credit and describes how farming (and to a lesser extent agribusiness) acquires, manages, and invests capital. Agricultural financing is unique because farming is unique. Farms are often small, family-sized enterprises, which are geographically dispersed and are dependent on uncertain factors such as weather, pests, crop disease, and access to water. Private capital is reluctant to invest in farming because it is risky in comparison to other sectors such as manufacturing or services. Consequently, governments have provided financial support for farmers in the form of loans, mortgages, price supports, export trade financing, and other subsidies. The term agricultural finance is also used to describe rural financing systems, which includes new forms of financing based on risk management such as weather insurance.
Agricultural commodity marketing and trade are areas where private speculative capital has been very active both historically and today, and as a result they are contested sites. In the nineteenth century, US commodity exchanges created fungible agricultural commodities through a combination of technological innovation in grain storage and transportation, as well as market regulation (Cronon 1992). Commodity exchanges emerged from cash markets to centralize trade and facilitate commodity exports and usually depend on speculation to operate. Speculation is trade based on the prediction of price movements with the uncertain possibility of a reward. As a result, speculation is risky and trades are usually made with no intention of taking physical delivery of the commodity, but with the intention of its resale. Speculation, if excessive, can result in sharp market swings.
Agriculture-based derivatives have traditionally referred to futures, a commodity exchange contract based on the future delivery of a specific type and amount of a commodity. Futures contracts are “derived” from an underlying physical commodity. Contemporary derivatives also refer to financial products, typically sold by banks and other financial investment firms that are further removed from actual commodities and commodity trade. These financial products often track agricultural commodity prices in an index, typically alongside nonagricultural commodities such as minerals and oil. In addition, some index products also include agricultural land. Most of these financial products were developed in the wake of financial market deregulation in the 1980s–1990s, and investment in these financial vehicles grew remarkably after 2000.
Historically, the state has played an important role in creating institutions to support agriculture and to regulate finance. The US government regulated commodity exchanges in the early twentieth century in order to reduce chances for market manipulation by private actors and restrict excessive speculation. While the activities of banks were regulated in commodity markets, legislation supporting credit unions and other cooperative endeavors were encouraged. In Europe, agrarian interests established cooperatives and credit unions to finance and support farmers. In Canada and Australia, governments established marketing boards to manage commodity trade of grains, in part to restrict the manipulation of grain markets and to provide stable prices for farmers and orderly marketing for exports.
Recent decades have seen a systematic reduction in the role of the state in performing these functions. Financial market regulation has been relaxed in the USA, while government marketing boards have been reformed and privatized in both Canada and Australia. While the vast majority of US farm credit is held by state agencies, commercial banks’ share of farm credit is increasing (Briggeman 2011). This move away from state involvement in financial aspects of the sector has had important implications for agriculture and farmers. Whereas farmers and agriculture shaped financial regulation in the past, there are indications that finance is now shaping agriculture and agricultural commodity markets. The implications of these changes include food price volatility and increased speculative activity in agricultural commodities, including land, increased farm debt, and declining farm incomes.
The increased visibility and intensification of these trends contribute to what many refer to as the “financialization of food.” Financialization generally refers to the “(I)ncreasing importance of financial markets, financial motives, financial institutions, and financial elites in the operation of the economy and its governing institutions, both at the national and international levels” (Epstein 2005, p. 3). Financialization is expanding into areas beyond traditional agricultural export nations such as Canada, the USA, and the EU as international organizations promote “financial inclusion” in many developing countries as a tool for agricultural development and growth (Soederberg 2013). Financialization is being extended, albeit unevenly, to new global sites, and it is accompanied by new financial actors and new kinds of financial tools.
Agricultural finance in a formal sense is a fairly recent development. There were (and are) forms of credit associated with subsistence agriculture, such as traditional moneylenders, and agricultural credit institutions such as credit unions, which arose in Europe with the commercialization of agriculture in the nineteenth century. Scientific agriculture, however, arrived with a new production system that required a more formalized means by which to provide capital for the purchase of inputs and the selling of outputs by farmers – that is, “scientific financing” (Robinson 1913). While not unheard of, in the early part of the twentieth century agricultural finance was of little interest to private banks (Wolff 1910). In the USA, there was a general concern that the banking system took money from the countryside and loaned it to “town-centered” interests (Roosevelt 1909). The state stepped in at this point to provide agricultural credit to support the industrial agriculture model and became the lender of last resort. Farmers organized to form cooperative agricultural banks backed by the state, and state-owned institutions were established. The US government enacted the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916 and created Federal Land Banks, and the Canadian government established the Canadian Farm Loan Board in 1927. The focus of state intervention was to provide farmers with credit and to prevent farm foreclosures (Coleman and Grant 1998).
Agricultural financing continued to be supported by developed countries after the Second World War. Agricultural commodity trade expanded as exporting countries marketed grain surpluses around the globe through export financing and subsidies. Canada and Australia supported grain-marketing boards, which guaranteed domestic farmers’ income and extended credit to importing countries. While the farmers of exporting nations benefitted from the supports, farmers in developing countries had to compete with commodities that were “dumped” (sold at below the cost of production). At the same time, many of these developing countries, as they gained independence, established state marketing boards that followed on from colonial marketing agencies (Laan 1987; Bates 2005).
Government backed institutions to support agriculture dominated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but these supports became politically unpopular in many countries in the wake of free trade and structural adjustment programs in the late twentieth century. By the 1970s, it was no longer seen to be in the public interest for governments to support and bear agricultural risk. The structural adjustment programs and free trade agreements of the 1980s and 1990s delegitimized state institutions by describing them as inefficient, anticompetitive, and too expensive (Bello and Baviera 2009). In a number of OECD countries, private financial institutions, along with representatives from finance ministries and large agricultural producers, began to influence agricultural policy and reorient it toward market liberalization, including pressure to liberalize state credit agencies (Coleman and Grant 1998). For example, in Canada, the crown corporation Farm Credit Canada was restructured to align with private credit in the 1980s and began to extend credit to agribusiness and processors. A similar pattern occurred in Brazil, where structural reforms in the early 1990s displaced domestic credit agencies and encouraged foreign direct investment by agrifood corporations (Kumar and World Bank 2005).
As a result of these changes, agricultural credit shifted from being primarily state supported to coming from the private domain, and increasingly from global capital (Coleman 2004). In the USA, state-supported agricultural credit has been declining and private financing is increasing. The farm credit system holds a significant amount of debt, but since the 1990s private credit has been increasingly funding farm operations (Briggeman 2011). In addition, new sources of credit are being offered to farmers, for example, machinery suppliers are providing loans and grain corporations are providing loans and forward contracts to secure supplies.
While private financial institutions and actors are providing credit to farmers in OECD countries, there has been less success in low-income countries. Economists have long linked access to credit with the adoption of agricultural technology and innovation. In addition, some economists have highlighted how the lack of agricultural finance re-enforces “poverty traps” and as such advocate for risk-based finance programs (Sachs et al. 2004; Barnett et al. 2008). As a result, international development agencies and banks have developed a number of programs to encourage private finance to support agriculture and boost “financial inclusion” (Aitken 2013). These projects include structured trade and value chain financing (Miller 2011; McMichael 2013), programs to encourage the reform of collateral laws and land titling (World Bank 2012), and microfinance (Aitken 2013). Importantly, all these development programs are premised on debt (Shipton 2010).
The link between financial investors and trade in agricultural commodities has a long history. Futures exchanges for agricultural commodities were established as far back as the sixteenth century in Amsterdam (Stringham 2003), the eighteenth century in both London and Osaka (Schaede 1989), and in the nineteenth century in Chicago (Cronon 1992). These markets emerged as trade in agricultural commodities spanned larger geographical distances, and there was a greater need for places of exchange for these goods. Buyers and sellers could purchase and sell contracts promising future delivery of agricultural commodities on one centralized platform and use futures contracts to hedge risks associated with the uncertainty of agricultural commodity trade. In addition to establishing delivery dates, the contracts established quality and ownership of the agricultural commodity. By the mid-nineteenth century, the practice of commodity futures trading became widespread as agricultural trade increased.
Commodity exchanges centralize and organize markets, commercialize agriculture, and provide important services such as price information and risk protection. Furthermore, as government support has waned for agriculture, proponents of commodity exchanges state that these services can, and should, be extended to farmers. In particular, farmers who have difficulty accessing credit can use the services of commodity exchanges to manage risk and raise capital. But, commodity exchanges also have critics.
Historically, farmers and farmer organizations have been distrustful of commodity exchanges, and agrarians were the first and primary critics of large-scale markets speculation. Although many US states had outright banned futures, by the late nineteenth century the fictitious or paper trade of futures contracts had overwhelmed the physical trade of commodities in centers such as Chicago (Cowing 1957). For example, a contract would be written for a bale of cotton or a bushel of corn that had not yet been harvested, but a contract representing that corn could be traded many times over with multiple bets on price movements. Financial speculators benefitted from credit that enabled them to buy contracts with less than 10% of the value of contract.
The debate over whether commodity exchanges are necessary for agricultural commodity marketing and financing pivots on who one thinks should benefit from futures trading. Traders of grain initially developed early commodity exchanges. Participants include large grain farmers, grain elevator operators, railway companies, and food processors such as grain millers as key participants. Proponents of commodity exchanges argue that futures trading is a close representation of pure competition and helps to manage the risk associated with agricultural markets. For example, hedging can be used to manage risk and “insure” against unexpected commodity price swings. Although there have been many efforts to make commodity exchanges more attractive to smaller farmers and other agricultural producers, only the largest producers are regularly active on the exchanges, and their activity is mediated by brokers. The utility of commodity exchanges is open for debate, and the debate often revolves around the role of the financial speculators who provide the needed capital to keep agricultural commodity trade liquid.
Agrarian movements were crucial to developing unique forms of financial regulation and legislation in the USA and Canada (Prasad 2012; Sanders 1999; Carney 2011; Winson 1992). The US Grain Futures Act of 1922 and the US Commodity Exchange Act of 1936 sought to limit manipulation. These regulations required all futures trading to take place on approved exchanges, mandated daily reporting by traders on their activities, and implemented “position limits” on financial speculators operating in these markets, which controlled the number of futures contracts they were legally allowed to hold at any time. In addition, the1933 Glass-Steagall Act in the USA regulated banking and speculation by banks. The aim of the legislation was not to outlaw financial speculation on these markets, but rather to prevent “excessive” speculation that might result in market manipulation and sudden sharp price shifts (Clapp and Helleiner 2012). Since 1974, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has been the regulatory body overseeing these regulations in the USA.
The liberalization of financial markets in the 1980s–1990s resulted in structural shifts in agricultural commodity markets. For example, the US Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA), passed in 2000, brought in changes to rules that relaxed position limits and reporting rules. Commodity exchanges have also undergone significant organizational and technological changes in recent decades. Exchanges have shifted from discreet, voluntary, self-governed associations to multinational, publically traded corporate models with a responsibility to shareholders and profits. The trend among the exchanges toward consolidation occurred alongside investments in new exchanges in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. The new exchanges are supported and promoted by international organizations as part of development programs and as a support to farmers. In addition, deregulation has facilitated the evolution of new financial tools and actors.
Agriculture-Based Financial Derivatives
Although tight regulations on agricultural commodity futures trade had been in place for over 50 years, the relaxation of those rules in the 1980s and 1990s enabled banks to sell new financial products linked to agricultural commodities (Ghosh 2010). The combination of relaxed position limits and the exemption of off-exchange (over-the-counter, or OTC) derivatives from reporting, in particular, fuelled the creation of new financial products that burst onto the scene without regulators being aware of their size and scope. Finance and specifically derivatives growth is increasing in emerging markets, and it is important to note that while commodity exchanges in the industrialized countries are dominated by complex commodity derivatives, developing country exchanges are dominated by agricultural contracts.
A common agriculture-based financial derivative product that banks began to sell after 2000 is known as a “commodity index fund” (CIF), typically traded OTC or off exchange. CIFs track changes in the prices of a bundle of different types of commodities as an index. The index is made up of the prices of agricultural commodities, minerals, livestock, and petroleum products. Typically, agricultural products account for around one third of the value of these indices. CIFs enable investors to gain exposure to commodity markets without being required to purchase the actual commodities on exchanges. The Standard and Poor’s Goldman Sachs Index and the Dow Jones AIG Index are two of the more popular CIF products on the market (IATP 2012; De Schutter 2010). The sale of these financial products poses real financial risks for the banks that sell them, because they must pay out to investors if prices rise. To hedge these new financial risks, the banks began to purchase commodity futures contracts on commodity exchanges – which they were able to do given the relaxation of regulations regarding position limits. The ability to enter the commodity markets in this way then enabled them gain financially if prices rose, and thus be able to make the payments to their CIF investors.
Around this time, banks and investment houses also began to offer other kinds of financial derivative products linked to the agricultural sector (Burch and Lawrence 2009, pp. 271–272; McMichael 2012, pp. 988–991). These other products include funds that invest not just in commodities but also in farmland and shares in agriculture-based firms, often on exchanges, and referred to as exchange trade funds (ETFs). BlackRock, the world’s largest manager of financial assets, for example, established its Agriculture Fund in 2007, which in 2016 managed over US$230 million in assets invested in commodity futures, farmland, agricultural input firms, and food processing and trading companies (BlackRock 2016). General agricultural funds typically bundle these investments into an index in which retail and institutional investors can purchase shares. Some of the new agriculture funds specialize specifically in farmland acquisition, and as of 2012 some 66 funds included farmland in their investment portfolios (Buxton et al. 2012).
Large agricultural commodity trading firms have also begun to sell agriculture-based financial derivatives. The largest grain trading companies – Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus – are all heavily engaged in the agricultural derivatives market (Clapp 2015). Each of these firms has established a financial arm to manage its involvement in these markets. Commodity trading firms tend to have an information advantage in futures markets because they are often the first to know of impending crop shortages or other interruptions to agricultural trade (Meyer 2011). These firms use agricultural derivatives to hedge their own risks in the physical commodity trade, but it is difficult to discern what is hedging and what is speculation, making regulation particularly challenging (Murphy et al. 2012).
The increased activity of financial actors after the passage of the CFMA in 2000 is reflected in the growth of agriculture-based derivatives. The total assets of financial speculators in agricultural commodity markets increased from US$65 billion in 2006 to some US$126 billion by early 2011 (Worthy 2011, p. 13), and the number of investment funds in food and agriculture rose from 33 in 2005 to 240 by 2014, managing some US$45 billion in assets (Valoral 2015). Similar to the late nineteenth century, fictitious or paper trade of futures contracts has once again exceeded the physical trade of commodities. In the US wheat futures market, for example, financial speculators’ share of the trade increased from 12% in the mid-1990s to 61% in 2011 (Worthy 2011, p. 13). In the international coffee market, it is estimated that 1 kg coffee is traded 8,000 times over in speculative trade (Breger Bush 2012, p. 40).
The main investors in these new agricultural commodity derivatives products are large-scale institutional investment funds that are seeking to gain exposure to commodity markets. Previously, the commodity markets in the USA restricted investment by banks, but the relaxation of banking regulations in the 1990s by the CFMA opened agricultural commodity investment and speculation to a whole new set of financial actors. Institutional investors include insurance companies, pension funds, mutual funds, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, and university and foundation endowments. These investment funds pool their resources, which enable them to expand and diversify their investment options while sharing transaction costs (Burch and Lawrence 2009, pp. 272–273; Clapp 2014). Large-scale investors tend to make long-term passive investment decisions that do not require active management, and do not always have detailed knowledge of their own investments. Some estimates put all agricultural investments of pension funds at around US$320 billion in 2012, up significantly from the US$6 billion they held in investments in this sector in 2002 (Buxton et al. 2012, p. 2). Investment in agricultural commodities fell in 2014–2015, as the sector overall saw significant price declines. However, investment in the sector began to pick up again in late 2016.
Implications of a Reduced Role for the State
Whereas the state took a strong role in providing institutions and regulation at the intersection of the financial and agricultural sectors in the past, in recent decades we have seen private actors take a front seat in agricultural finance. Private financial investments linked to agriculture have direct consequences for physical commodity markets – production, pricing, storage, and trade – and in turn these changes have important consequences for farmers, consumers, and the environment.
Agricultural financing is increasingly being directed to agribusinesses and other “industrial” targets. At the same time, industrial farming requires an increased amount of capital to fund day-to-day operations, as well as medium-term credit for major equipment purchases and long-term credit for land purchases and development. In turn, farmers are signatories to contracts linked to companies for inputs, machinery, and lines of credit. While access to credit is said to lead to the adoption of agricultural technology and innovation, an additional implication of credit is debt. Farm debt is on the rise in Canada and the USA. Whereas some economists have suggested lack of credit leads to “poverty traps,” there are also indications that rising levels of debt are another kind of “poverty trap.” The dependence on agribusiness for inputs and financing can restrict farmers’ ability to determine farming methods independently. Instead, agricultural finance is flowing to less risky corporations and private industry, and there are indications that farmers’ indebtedness is creating opportunities for new kinds of financial partnerships (Ouma 2016; Sippel et al. 2017). Farm corporations (Magnan 2011) and large-scale land acquisitions (McMichael 2012) are linked directly to international capital and markets. The volatility of those markets is making it very difficult for independent farmers to operate without new financial partners.
The financialization in the food system has also been widely considered to be a factor in volatile commodity prices, as food and agriculture prices tend to react and follow trends in financial markets. As more money was invested in commodities after 2000, food prices began to climb rapidly. In the 2006–2008 period, average world prices for rice rose by 217%, wheat by 136%, maize by 125%, and soybeans by 107% (Kearney et al. 2008). Although some analysts see no link between rising financial speculation and food prices (Irwin and Sanders 2011), others are concerned that speculation rather than supply and demand is shaping prices (IATP 2012). There is now growing recognition among international organizations that speculation in agricultural commodity markets exacerbates price trends. The Bank for International Settlements noted, for example, that financialization influences commodity prices, especially in the short term (2011). Several UN reports have also come to a similar conclusion (De Schutter 2010; UNCTAD 2011). This volatility has important implications for consumers, especially in developing countries that are increasingly reliant on imported foodstuffs. As food prices rose in 2007–2008 and again in 2010–2012, hunger and social unrest became key concerns for governments.
Financialization in the agricultural sector has also been associated with the global land rush. Financial investors have been identified as major actors in the rise in large-scale agricultural land acquisitions (McMichael 2012; Fairbairn 2014). Paradoxically, financialization has made investments in agricultural production appear to be both more secure than financial investments, and provides a way to minimize risks associated with volatile agricultural commodity prices. The development of new financial instruments has also made the involvement of financial investors in land much easier. Investors can invest financially in new kinds of land-based derivatives such as land funds and land index funds without taking on the risk of owning the land directly and individually (Burch and Lawrence 2009; McMichael 2012). Instead, they acquire exposure to the productivity of the land through intermediaries such as large investment banks and hedge funds (GRAIN 2008). Investor acquisition of large tracts of land is associated with both social and ecological consequences. Smallholders are often displaced from lands that they have traditionally occupied and land is often cleared of forests for large-scale industrial production of both food and biofuel crops, which have implications for climate change, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss (White et al. 2012; Cotula 2012).
The risks associated with agriculture remain. In fact, it could be argued that with climate change the risks of agriculture have increased due to more severe and unpredictable weather events. What has changed though is that agricultural finance has shifted from state support for farmers to state support for financial actors and international capital. The dominance of financial actors in agricultural finance is expected to continue to increase as capital has become essential to modern agricultural production. In turn, this will likely only encourage further adoption of intensive agricultural practices that are reliant on chemical and petrochemical inputs rather than low-input sustainable practices.
The combination of a balanced public and private interest in agriculture provided a long period of commodity price stability during a good part of the twentieth century; however, recent price volatility has benefitted financial speculators but there is less evidence that agricultural producers have benefitted. The best that producers can hope for is to “hedge” against price swings, often at considerable costs. For smallholders, alternative financing models such as microcredit are becoming more entangled in global financial markets (Aitken 2013), and there is little evidence that agricultural derivatives are beneficial to small producers (Breger Bush 2012).
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