Banks such Goldman Sachs are making huge profits by gambling on the prices of key commodity crops such as coffee, cocoa and wheat, according to the campaign group the World Development Movement (WDM).
By creating funds to allow investors to speculate on the price of food, in the same way they would invest in the shares of a company, banks are able to bet on the price of food.
However this is leading to higher and more volatile prices which make it more difficult for farmers to plan and invest and also lead to damaging price rises - such as those witnessed in 2007/8 - which hit the poorest families in less industrialised countries hardest.
Only last month, says WDM, the price of coffee jumped by 20 per cent in three days, after a trader called the bluff of hedge funds that had made millions by selling coffee contracts and betting on the price to fall. This left hedge funds scrambling to buy actual coffee beans, and the price shot up from the extra demand.
'Nobody benefits from this kind of reckless gambling except a few City wheeler-dealers,' said WDM director Deborah Doane. 'British consumers suffer because it pushes up inflation, British companies suffer because of unpredictable oil and raw material prices, and the world's poorest people suffer because basic foods become unaffordable.'
The biggest banks involved in the trading are Bank of America, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan. Goldman Sachs alone is estimated to have made more than $1 billion from commodities trading in 2009.
WDM's new report, 'The great hunger lottery', calls for limits to be set on the amount that bankers can bet on food prices and for an end to secretive trading. The US has recently passed tougher regulation for the financial sector but WDM says similar reforms in the EU may not be agreed because of opposition from the City of London and UK Treasury, which still denies speculation played a significant role in the 2007/8 price spikes.
'Perhaps not coincidentally, London is host to the highest amount of commodity trading outside the United States. Recent opposition to EU regulation of hedge funds by the UK treasury shows that the UK government still gives a disproportionate voice to the financial sector at the expense of other sectors of the economy, and against the interests of citizens,' says the WDM report.
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