Corruption in Commodity Trading

I haven’t yet received my pre-ordered copy of The World for Sale by Javier Blass and Jack Farchy, but it has already spurred some headlines about corruption in the world of commodity trading. The story that attracted the most attention concerns a former Glencore mining executive who admitted to the book’s authors that in 2003 he flew around the world with bags of cash to be paid in bribes to government officials.

The authors rightly point out that, although unethical and immoral, it was both legal and even tax-deductible in 2003 for Swiss companies like Glencore to pay ‘commissions’. The Swiss government has thankfully rectified that sad state of affairs, and Glencore has banned using local agents, the intermediaries they used to facilitate corruption.

Glencore started life as Marc Rich & Co, led by a brilliant but flawed trader who specialised in dealing in countries where most people feared to tread. Daniel Ammann has written a (truly) excellent biography of Marc Rich – The King of Oil – in which he tackles the issue of corruption. He writes

“Most commodities come from countries that are not beacons of democracy and human rights. The “resource curse” and “the paradox of plenty” are the terms economists and political scientists use to describe the fact that countries that are rich in oil, gas or metals are usually plagued by poverty, corruption, and misgovernment. If commodity traders want to be successful, they are forced—much like journalists or intelligence agents who will take their information from any source—to sit down with people that they would rather not have as friends, and they apparently have to resort to practices that are either frowned upon or downright illegal in other parts of the world.”

Mr Ammann is right: corruption has more to do with governments than commodity trading. The onus is on governments to cure the disease.

Way back in 1977, the US instituted the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). It made it unlawful for a U.S. person or company to offer, pay, or promise to pay money or anything of value to any foreign official for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business.

More recently, China, previously one of the world’s most corrupt countries, has resorted to drastic action, instituting capital punishment for corrupt officials.  Other countries are taking less drastic measures, but they are moving, albeit too slowly, in the right direction.

Corruption in commodities typically thrives when governments get involved in, for example, awarding mineral rights, production or trade quotas or by setting prices.

It was omnipresent in the agricultural markets when I began my career in commodities. At that time, only the government had the right to import or export certain commodities in many countries. Buying and selling tenders were often rigged – and you were never sure how much money was being siphoned off or added on before it reached the farmers or the consumers.

Over the past 40 years, governments have exited the agricultural commodity trade; the business has been privatised. When business is in private hands, producers or buyers have little interested in receiving bribes; it is the price and the terms of the deal that interest them.

But what should you do if a government official asks for a bribe? In my book, The Sugar Casino, I told the true story of the first time someone asked me for one:

“After spending two years as a futures trader in Minneapolis, my company transferred me back to London with a brief to develop new markets in the Middle East and Africa. The company’s agent in one country (I won’t say which one) contacted me to say that they had surplus sugar that year and the government would like to export a couple of cargoes to earn much needed foreign exchange. The minister who was handling the sale was coming to London the following week. Could I meet him?

 “Despite being only 25 years old, I met the minister and took him to an expensive restaurant. We had an excellent meal, discussed the sugar market and tried to estimate the price for the particular grade of sugar the country was exporting. As we were leaving, he surprised me by suggesting that we dine again the following evening. I agreed even though I was unsure what we had left to talk about.

 “The next evening, the minister slipped me a shopping list of electronic items that he would like to take back with him from London. There were only four items on the list: a television, a radio, a stereo system and (bizarrely) an electric iron. He asked if I could help him obtain these items. I wasn’t quite sure if he asked me to go with him to the shops to choose the items or ask me to buy the items and give them to him for free. And if it was the latter, I was surprised at how little it took to bribe a minister.

 “The next day, I told my boss what had happened. I thought it was a bit of a joke. Still, my boss took it seriously, advising me to go back to the minister to politely explain that company policy meant that we couldn’t help with his request but that we would still like to buy his sugar and be very competitive on the price. I did as instructed and was not surprised to hear a week later that one of our competitors had bought the two cargos of sugar. I calculated they had probably made a profit of $240,000 on the deal. I compared that to the couple of hundred dollars it would have cost to buy the items on the minister’s shopping list.

 “I mentioned this to my boss, who told me angrily that I should never think about paying a bribe to anyone, no matter how much money was at stake. He called it “selling your soul to the devil” and argued that even if a television may not cost much, it was “the thin edge of the wedge. And from a business point of view”, he added, “It makes no sense.

 “First, it will give your client a hold over you. Second, if everyone does the same thing, you will end up competing against each other in the number of bribes that you pay.” He called it “competitive corruption” and said that paying a bribe would be ineffective if your competitor paid more.

In 2016, I interviewed the legendary sugar trader Robert Kuok for The Sugar Casino. He told me:

“One piece of advice: never hug the high and mighty; they electrocute you. Keep them at arm’s length. And always adhere to moral practices, and nothing can stop you. If someone asks you for a bribe, you should say that neither you nor your company could do that. But stay very polite. Don’t stand on your high horse and preach morality at that moment. Just turn them down nicely. If you get a chance later at a meal or something, you can pontificate a little, but not then – they are not in the mood to be listening to moral truth.

Sound advice, indeed.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

A Conversation with Aitana Conca

I recently caught up with Aitana Conca, previously Global Head of Middle Desk and Contract Management for Cargill’s Ocean Transportation Division in Geneva, and now Director -EMEA for Chinsay.

Good morning, Aitana. Could you please tell me a little about yourself?

I live in Switzerland, but I am originally from Spain, where I grew up and studied.

I started my commodities career when I joined Cargill Geneva in 2005 in the finance team of their Ocean Transportation division. I already had a deep understanding of finance. Still, I knew nothing about trading or shipping and learned everything from the bottom up, which has given me a solid knowledge of the industry’s complexities.

I felt that my career had hit a ‘pivot point’ and wanted to explore new avenues and offer the digital skills that were increasingly in demand. I needed to step out of my comfort zone and left Cargill to study for a Global Executive Master in Digital Business at Madrid’s ISDI business school.

I was excited to join Chinsay as I knew them from my time at Cargill – I was one of their first customers.

As a woman, did you find yourself in a ‘man’s world’ – and how did you deal with that?

Being a woman has never been an obstacle in my career, even in the male-dominated trading and shipping world. Having said that, I often felt the need for having to craft more solid arguments than my male peers.

Research has shown that diversified teams outperform non-diversified teams. Women bring a different perspective than men, and we definitely add value and insight. Many companies know this, and they embrace gender diversity. I’ve been lucky to work with companies that welcome women for the value that they bring.

Cargill is known for its training programmes. What was your experience with this, and have you had a chance to make use of it?

Cargill has excellent programmes for employee development. They don’t only teach you technical or professional skills. They teach you to be a better leader and how to navigate as a woman.

I am lucky that at Chinsay, I can continue to empower women and develop them into leadership roles. I find that very exciting.

Chinsay, like Cargill, is becoming more diverse and is interested in making women’s voices in the industry heard, and the company has a real passion for bettering client’s businesses. These are some of the factors that helped me decide to join their executive team.

What were the other drivers in your decision to join Chinsay?

Chinsay allows me to help people with innovation and digital transformation. It is a passion of mine. I have the opportunity to help drive real change and consider the future of technology and the market.

On the customer side, I can empathise with our clients and put myself in their shoes. I have been in their position; this helps me gain insights and establish a foundation of understanding. I can support our clients on their digital transformation journey.

From Chinsay’s side, I can help the company become an even more customer-centric company. That’s my objective!

Briefly, what does Chinsay do?

We enable clients to digitalise workflows in freight and commodity sectors. We focus on efficiency, compliance, controls and transparency. That is our core business, but we go beyond that. We are becoming increasingly about data: collecting, analysing and integrating our clients’ information into their systems.

We bring business clarity and efficiency to what has traditionally been a siloed, disconnected industry, and we reduce cost and risk.

Chinsay has several big names clients. Why do they need you?

We are fortunate to have a great relationship with clients, and our service and solution benefit greatly from input and advice. A good example is Cargill. They built the Covantis Blockchain platform in partnership with other grain-trading companies, and we work on the portion of the workflow that precedes the post-trade part.

We definitely believe in the principle of working together and integrating with best-of-breed technology; Covantis is a great example of the benefits of having one seamless flow of operations and data.

You joined Chinsay in December 2020. How are things going so far?

I am still learning, finding out how the company works and functions. I am looking at areas where the company can improve internally, particularly in shaping our product offering from the customer’s perspective.

My objective is to build a partnership with our customers. I look at it as ‘push versus pull’. Rather than ‘push’ our services to our customers, we want our customers to ‘pull’ Chinsay’s service into their systems.

First, you have to understand your customer’s needs and then work to fill those needs; don’t try to push your ready-made product or service onto the customer.

Is there anything you want to add?

I have three essential themes in my life:

The first is the empowerment of women: helping women thrive in male-dominated environments. I am a champion for gender diversity, whether at the local school or in the workplace.

The second is the importance of trust in both professional and private relationships. That could be between yourself and your children, or your company and clients. Without trust, you have nothing.

The third is to constantly learn and do better in both my personal and professional life. I see data and digital transformation as the agent for change for much of life, both now and in the future. It is the future, and I want to be an agent for that change.

Last question: how are you coping with lockdown?

On the professional side, we have been fortunate during lockdowns because our clients see us as a core part of remote working.

On the personal side, I miss the hugs!

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

This is part of our series promoting women in agricultural commodities. Please get in touch if you have a story to tell on this theme.

The history of wheat

History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the ploughed fields whereby we thrive. It knows the names of the king’s bastards but cannot tell us the origin of wheat. This is the way of human folly.  –           Jean-Henri Fabre (1823 –1915) French naturalist and author

 Wheat, barley and rye can trace their origin back to Triticeae, a grass that grew wild in the Fertile Crescent. Wild einkorn and emmer are wheat’s earliest ancestors; they had seed heads that quickly broke apart in the wind, scattering the seeds and permitting self-sowing. Modern-day wheat is the opposite: the grains now stay on the stalks no matter how strong the wind.

Modern-day wheat did not benefit as much as corn from the Fritz Haber process of combining nitrogen with hydrogen to make ammonia. Until the middle of the 20th century, applying nitrogen as fertiliser on wheat made it grow taller and thicker, but it fell over in the wind and rotted. Wheat needed to be genetically improved to take advantage of the technological progress in fertilisers.

One of the first leaps forward occurred in 1935 when a Japanese scientist named Gonjiro Inazuka crossed a semi-dwarf Japanese wheat species with two American varieties to produce an improved semi-dwarf variety Norin 10. Unlike previous types, which grew to 150 cm, Norin 10 only reached 60–110 cm.

In the late 1940s, Orville Vogel at Washington State University took another step forward when he imported Norin 10 into the US and crossed it with other varieties to yield high-yielding, semi-dwarf winter wheat.

However, the revolution in wheat—and it was a revolution—occurred in 1952. Norman Borlaug took some of these new Norin hybrid seeds to Mexico and grew thousands of unique varieties. He couldn’t sequence the wheat’s DNA to figure out which genes caused these traits because that technology didn’t exist then, but he carefully noted each variety’s characteristics. His work paid off, producing new kinds of dwarf wheat that were rust-resistant and didn’t blow over (lodge) in high winds.

By the 1960s, Borlaug was travelling the world to spread the news. His first stop was Pakistan where wheat yields were around 360kg an acre. Mexican farmers were by then getting more than three times that. His major success, however, was in India.

When India became independent in 1947, the country produced only 6.5 million tonnes of wheat each year, and yields were around 663 kg per hectare. It was not enough to feed the Indian population, and the country largely depended on food-aid imports from the US.

In 1963, India was on the brink of famine. The government invited Borlaug to India to test his new varieties. His yields were four or five times better, and India’s farmers quickly took up the new breeds. By 1974, India’s wheat production had tripled, and the country was self-sufficient in food. India has never faced a famine since.

In 1970 Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for enabling what came to be called the ‘Green Revolution’. He earned it.

World wheat production has more than tripled in the last sixty years, from 234 million mt in 1960 to 772 million mt in 2020. At the same time, wheat acreage has only risen 10 per cent, from 202 million hectares to 222 million hectares. Without Norman Borlaug, the world population would not have increased over that same sixty-year period from 3.0 to 7.7 billion. And what’s more, crop failures and famines would still be regular occurrences.

But it is not just the varieties of wheat that have evolved over the centuries; so too has the way humanity has sown, harvested and ground it into flour.

Ancient Egyptians sowed wheat by casting seeds into the mud after the retreat of annual floodwaters along the Nile. They then drove their cattle over the area to trample the seeds into the ground. Hand scattering of seed is still used today in many parts of the world.

Early farmers harvested their wheat with sharpened stones fitted into a wood or bone handle, but the introduction of iron and steel led to the sickle, a tool that is still widely used. Sickles are light enough to be used by women and children and allow wheat to be cut at any height so that they can leave the straw standing or cut it separately.

The sickle was so crucial in human development that the USSR put it with the hammer on its flag. The hammer represented industry, the sickle, agriculture.

The scythe was an improvement over the sickle with a longer blade at right angles to a long wooden handle. You can harvest wheat faster with a scythe than with a sickle, and you can stand upright while you do it. However, a scythe cuts the straw close to the ground, leaving it attached to the wheat head. A scythe is heavier than the sickle. But the scythe has again entered into our collective psyches with death portrayed as the Grim Reaper harvesting souls.

The first mechanical reaper appeared in 1831: a two-wheeled, horse-drawn contraption pushed a series of moving, scissor-like blades against the grain to clip it close to the ground. A rotating paddlewheel swept the stalks against the cutting bales, so they fell on a platform as the machine moved forward.

Once farmers had harvested the wheat, they spread it on a plot of hard ground or threshing floor. They then drove cattle or horses over the grain so that their hooves separated the wheat from the chaff. Winnowing, or tossing the mixture into the air, then allowed the wind to blow away the lighter chaff and the heavier wheat to drop back. The threshing machine later used fans to separate the chaff from the grain, mechanically doing the process.

As its name suggests, the modern combine harvester performs all these basic jobs in one operation. Hiram Moore developed the first version in 1834 and, by 1860, combine harvesters had cutting widths of several meters. In 1885, Hugh Victor McKay, from Australia, developed the first commercial combine harvester, called the Sunshine Harvester. It reduced the number of working hours needed to harvest one acre of wheat from 46 hours to 30 minutes. Today a modern combine can harvest 1,000 bushels per hour. That’s more than 27 metric tonnes.

Once harvested, wheat needs to be milled into flour, separating the outer bran and germ from the inner, more digestible, endosperm. Although wheat has been grown for thousands of years, humans’ teeth from excavated villages dating back to 6,700 BC show no signs of wear, indicating that those early people already milled wheat. Archaeologists have found grinding stones at sites of ancient settlements in almost all parts of the world.

Over the centuries, mills have been powered by men, horses, oxen, water, or wind, all geared to turn one stone against another. The Romans were the first to use waterpower for milling flour, in about 100 BC, and it remained a significant source of mill power. In 1870, most of the approximately 22,000 flour mills in the US were still water driven.

© Commodity Conversations ®

For more about wheat please click here

The politics of wheat

“No man qualifies as a statesman who is entirely ignorant of the problems of wheat.” Socrates

Socrates was right: The Roman Empire needed a steady supply of wheat to flourish. Grain made into bread was the most critical element in the Roman diet, and the city required between 150,000 and 250,000 tonnes per year to feed its population. Rome imported most of its grain supplies and distributed a ‘dole’ of subsidised or free grain, and later bread, to about 200,000 less well-off residents, about a fifth of its population.

The Romans initially imported wheat from Sicily and Sardinia but later centred production on Carthage’s ancient city, in present-day Tunisia. In the second century BCE, the Emperor settled 6,000 colonists near Carthage, giving them about 25 hectares to grow grain. Later, when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, the country became its primary supply source.

The Romans shipped the grain by barge to Alexandria, where they inspected it for quality and loaded it on ships for Rome. They transported it into sacks, rather than carrying it loose in the holds; ships transported an average of 350 tonnes, although some had as much as 1,500 tonnes. The ships were sail driven, unlike the Roman warships propelled by oarsmen. Sailing times from Italy to Alexandria in Egypt might be as brief as 14 days, but returning to Rome would have taken as long as 70 days as the winds were adverse.

Centuries later, Britain depended on wheat imports from its empire to feed itself and encouraged wheat cultivation in Australia and Canada.

In 1846, the UK abolished the Corn Laws, a system of tariffs and other trade restrictions on imported food and grain introduced in 1815. (Remember, at that time the word ‘corn’ referred to all cereal grains, such as wheat and barley.) The government had introduced the laws to keep grain prices high and protect domestic farmers and (particularly) landowners.

The repeal of the Corn Laws was a decisive moment in British economic history. Their repeal lowered food prices, encouraged increased agricultural productivity, and freed up surplus labour to drive Britain’s industrialisation.

But the repeal didn’t just change England. As Dan Morgan wrote in Merchants of Grain,

“Parliament, with its stroke of repeal, …changed the world. Repeal of the protectionist system had opened England to the wheat of all the world, created incentives for the settlement of vast territories across the oceans, and established the conditions for modern international trade, with the new sea routes and modern trading empires.”

The pressure of cheap imports drove a steep decline in British domestic wheat production. At the same time, food became more affordable. Between 1840 and 1880, the cost of bread fell by half. By the end of the 19th century, Britain was importing 5 million tonnes of wheat per year, about 20 per cent of which came from Britain’s colonies: Australia (150,000 mt), India (300,000 mt) and Canada (450,000 mt).

On the other side of the Atlantic, early setters were dependent on imported flour from Europe, most often England, until they could produce wheat independently. Though corn saved the early settlements, many settlers didn’t like it. They baked a bread called ‘thirds’ which they added to the imported wheat flour: one-third wheat flour, one-third rye, and one-third cornmeal.

By the 1740s, the US was exporting wheat to England from the northern fields of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The US grew in importance as a wheat exporter after the American Revolution when the great migration into North America’s heartlands, along with the railroads, opened up new areas for farming.

Europe desperately needed this production, notably when their harvests failed in 1790 and 1807, and later, in 1860–1862. The Napoleonic wars (1803 to 1815) and World Wars I and II also led to spikes in wheat imports.

Wheat not only fed Europe during our numerous wars, but it also provoked conflicts. Writing in The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, the British historian Peter Frankopan argues that the Nazis invaded Russia for its wheat. Paul Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, wrote that the Nazis opened the Russian front for ‘grain and bread’, to capture ‘the vast fields of the east (which) sway with golden wheat, enough to nourish our people and all of Europe’.

We will never know, but some argue if the Nazis had never made that dash for Russian wheat—if they had never invaded the Soviet Union—they could have won the Second World War. Is it possible that we all owe our freedom to wheat?

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

To continue reading, please click on this link for the third part of this blog.

The magic of wheat

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” Genesis 3:19

Unlike corn or soybeans, humans, not animals or cars, are the most important in terms of the world demand for wheat. On average, animals only eat about 18 per cent of the world’s total production of wheat. This number falls to less than 4 per cent in developing countries but as much as 35 per cent in developed countries. As a rule of thumb, wheat works as animal feed when it is 10 per cent cheaper than corn, or when wet weather reduces its protein content to under 10 per cent.

Even though wheat acreage has increased only modestly, wheat is now grown on more land area than any other food crop: 222 million hectares versus corn at 196 million hectares and rice at 163 million hectares. In 2020, the world’s farmers produced 772 million mt of wheat, making it the second most-produced cereal after corn at 1.1 million mt. Rice comes in at third place at 500 million mt.

Wheat is still the world’s biggest traded agricultural commodity by volume. In 2020 world exports were 194 million mt, just ahead of corn at 184 million mt and soybeans at 170 million mt; little of the world’s rice production trades internationally: 45 million mt in 2020.

If you were to ask your guests at your next dinner party to list the top wheat-producing countries in the world, I bet that they would all get it wrong. They may guess correctly that the EU tops the list at 136 million mt, but few would know that China now produces more wheat—134 million mt—than any other country in the world. China’s farmers now grow about the same quantity of wheat as Russia (85 million mt) and the US (50 million tonnes) combined. India is the world’s third-largest producer at an estimated 107 million mt.

Your party guests may have more success with exporters. Russia is now the world’s largest exporter at 39 million mt, followed by the US at 27 million tonnes and Canada and the EU, both at 26.5 million mt. Ukraine comes in fifth on the list at 17 million mt. (All figures are for 2020.)

I can guarantee that none of your dinner party guests could name the world’s top wheat importers! Although Egypt used to supply the Roman Empire with wheat from the Nile valley, it is now the world’s largest importer at 13 million mt. Unsurprisingly, when you consider their large population, Indonesia comes second at 11 million. China imported nine mln mt of wheat in 2020, while Turkey comes fourth at 8 million mt.

Wheat is an essential source of carbohydrates, but with a protein content of about 13 per cent, it is also the world’s leading source of vegetal protein in human food. However, it is just this protein content—the gluten—that is now causing controversy.

Gluten gives dough its elasticity, helping it rise and keep its shape while at the same time leaving the final product with a chewy texture. However, gluten can trigger adverse inflammatory reactions—a broad spectrum of gluten-related disorders, including celiac disease—in 1 or 2 per cent of the population. Also, between 6 and 10 per cent of people suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity. ‘Wheat Belly’ symptoms can include bloating, headaches, tiredness, and skin problems.

In his bestselling book Wheat Belly published in 2011, the American cardiologist William Davis claimed that modern wheat is addictive; he recommended that you exclude it entirely from your diet.  In promoting his book, he wrote:

‘The wheat of today is nothing like the wheat of 1960, 1950—that is, the wheat that our moms or grandmothers had—so it has been changed. This new crop has implications for human health that have never been anticipated. So, this is appropriate for nobody, no human, nobody in this audience, should be eating this modern creation of genetics research.’

He added: ‘I’d like to make the case that foods made with wheat make you fat…. I’d go as far as saying that overly enthusiastic wheat consumption is the main cause of the obesity and diabetes crisis in the United States.’

His views have been vigorously contested both by scientists and by the wheat industry. As an ex-sugar trader, I am personally delighted that he is blaming wheat rather than sugar for the obesity epidemic of the past forty years. I am, however, unqualified to give an opinion on the matter.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021


Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield.  – Dwight Eisenhower

Corn is an awkward crop. Because of its shallow roots, it is susceptible to droughts, intolerant of nutrient-deficient soils, and prone to being uprooted by high winds. Corn reproduces sexually each year, randomly selecting half the genes from a given plant to propagate to the next generation. Corn breeding in prehistory led to larger plants and larger ears. Modern breeding began in the 19th century and, in the past 75 years, both conventional cross-breeding and genetic modification have succeeded in making corn less awkward, increasing output and reducing the impact of droughts and pests.

Many of the corn varieties grown in the US and Canada today are hybrids; over 90 per cent are the result of genetic modification. Grown commercially since 1997, GM corn now accounts for about one-third of the corn grown in the world, most of which has been genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate, or to provide protection against natural pests. Glyphosate, sold as Roundup, is a relatively inexpensive herbicide that kills all plants except those with genetic tolerance, which pretty much means all of them.

Monsanto released glyphosate-resistant soybeans under the name Roundup Ready Soybeans in 1996 and within ten years 80 per cent of all soybeans grown in the US were Roundup Ready.

Roundup Ready corn received FDA approval in 1997 and it was commercially released in 1998. It used much the same technology as in soybeans but also had built-in insect protection in the form of a Bt protein, a naturally occurring bacterium that lives in the soil and is toxic to insects.

Scientists also modified corn genes to make the crop more drought tolerance. The USDA approved drought-tolerant GM corn in 2011 and it was first commercialized in 2013.

Over the past twenty years, GM technology has revolutionised farming and transformed the seed and agricultural input business. Previously, much of a farm’s cost of production was in purchasing chemicals, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. Chemical companies made their money selling these inputs. Now the cost is in the development of the seeds. The result has been a merging of chemical and seed businesses with large chemical companies buying up the seed businesses.

Although GM technology has revolutionised the industry, its effect on yields is sometimes overstated.  By one estimate, about 50 per cent of yield increases since the 1920s have been the result of breeding, including genetic modification, while the other 50 per cent has come from improved farming practices. Better farming techniques have been just as important as genetics. However, this is hardly surprising when you consider that the primary objective of genetically modifying crops has not been to increase yield potential. The increases in yield that have come with genetically modified corn have come in the form of yield protection and stability, not actual increases in yield potential.

The USDA first began to publish corn yield estimates in 1866. Yields of open-pollinated corn varieties in the US remained fairly stagnant, averaging about 1.6 tonnes per hectare, for 70 years until about 1936. There was no significant change in productivity during that entire time period, even though farmers’ seed-saving practices represented a form of plant breeding.

Agricultural yields began to lift off with the adoption of hybrid corn in the late 1930s, but the most significant improvement in the annual rate of yield gain began in the mid-1950s in response to continued improvement in crop genetics, increasing adoption of nitrogen fertilizer and chemical pesticides, as well as agricultural mechanization. Since 1955, corn grain yields in the U.S. have increased at a fairly constant 1.9 bushels per acre per year, sustained primarily by continued improvements in genetics and crop production technologies.

The increase in global corn production in the last forty years has been more than impressive. In 1979, farmers in the US harvested 201 million tonnes of corn; in 2019 they harvested 366 million tonnes. In that same forty-year period, world corn production has increased from 425 million tonnes to 1.122 billion tonnes. Total world trade has increased by 100 million tonnes, from 70 to 170 million tonnes. However, in the same period, corn acreage has increased only 13 per cent, from 29 to 33 million hectares.

In his book More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources―and What Happens Next the bestselling author Andrew McAfee writes:

‘Farms of less than one hundred acres grow 15 per cent less corn per acre than farms with more than a thousand acres. And bigger farms get better faster. Between 1982 and 2012 farms under one hundred acres grew their total factor productivity by 15 per cent, whereas farms over a thousand acres grew theirs by 51 per cent.’

And as for the environmental costs of large-scale farming, Andrew McAfee writes:

A comprehensive review published in Nature Sustainability in 2018 concluded: “The data does not suggest that environmental costs are generally larger for high yield farming systems. If anything, positive associations – in which high yield, land efficient systems also have lower costs in other dimensions – appear more common.”

In other words – and contrary to popular belief –  large farms are generally more environmentally-friendly than small farms.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. More on this in later posts.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

This blog is part of a series called: ‘Food Doesn’t Have to Cost the Earth’.

More on the economics of cocoa

Readers have posed some interesting questions following my blog last week on cocoa.

One asked me to explain why I said a minimum sales price becomes a ceiling on the market. The answer is that if the price can’t go up, it will go down. If traders and manufacturers know that they can buy at a specific price, they have little risk in being short below that price. If the price rises, they can cover their shorts at a predictable loss. Minimum prices skew the risk/reward ratio and encourage people to sell short.

On a broader level, one commented that, because Ghana and Ivory Coast account for 60 per cent of world cocoa, they have the market power to set cocoa prices. He suggested that cocoa producers should get together to form COPEC, cocoa’s equivalent of OPEC.

Unfortunately, cocoa is not the same as oil. Oil producers can reduce supply by turning off a tap; they can leave it in the ground. It doesn’t deteriorate. Cocoa producers can’t turn off a tree. The trees keep producing, cocoa builds up at the ports, rots in the warehouses, and loses some, or all, of its value. In the meantime, farmers are left unpaid – with all the dire consequences that entail.

Cocoa is a front-loading crop: grinders and chocolate manufacturers tend to hold large stocks that they can run down if producers hold off new sales. Cocoa buyers are more affluent and better financed than producers – and they probably have better infrastructure.

One reader argued that the market is almost as concentrated on the buy-side as it is on the sales side. I very much doubt that cocoa buyers work together in the same way that cocoa producers do. Still, I would guess the balance weighs in the buyer’s favour in terms of market power.

A couple of readers pointed out that as growers only receive around 5 per cent of a chocolate bar’s cost, increasing the cocoa cost by $400 per tonne would only increase the bar’s price by one or two per cent. They have a point. Besides, Cargill recently conducted a survey that showed consumers would be willing to pay more if they thought that the farmer would benefit. ‘Surely,’ asked one reader, ‘consumers would pay 2 per cent more for their chocolate if they thought that it helped the farmers?’

The answer is that it would, but, increasing the price that farmers receive would encourage them to produce more, adding further pressure on prices.

Expressing this problem differently, another reader said that producing and consuming countries should cooperate in setting a fair price for cocoa.

In the past, the United Nations has done that by setting up commodity organisations to ‘manage’ the markets; cocoa, coffee, or sugar were three such examples. These commodity organisations tried to use stock management to bring supply and demand into balance at a price that gave a decent return to growers and a reasonable price for consumers.

When world prices fell, the various commodity bodies set to work by either purchasing (in the case of cocoa) physical cocoa to hold off the market or asking (in the case of coffee and sugar) producers to build stocks and limit exports. When prices rose again, they released these stocks.

These noble efforts, sadly, failed. When prices fell, coffee producers continued to export; they desperately needed the money to feed themselves. In the case of cocoa, the ICCO ran out of funding. In the case of sugar, producers failed to build the stocks they were supposed to. (Brazil famously said that their inventories were in the cane in the fields.)

As a consequence, when prices rose, either the stocks weren’t there or were insufficient to stem the prices’ rise.

As we saw earlier, market participants will tend to sell short ahead of a stock release price level; if stocks aren’t there, then the price explodes as shorts run for cover. It means that not only do international price agreements not work, they also actually increase market volatility. They are like communism: a great idea in theory, but a disaster in practice.

It is true even if the producers are in rich, developed countries.

The EU used to fix minimum prices for many agricultural products, maintaining them through a mix of quotas, stock management and subsidised exports. Over the years, production costs dropped as farmers became more efficient. Still, the EU continued increasing their minimum prices in line with general inflation. In the end, sugar prices were so profitable that French farmers used to call sugar beet quotas’ white gold’. Butter mountains and wine lakes built up. So did subsidise exports – to the detriment of farmers in importing countries.

The EU has gradually wound down their market management schemes (sugar and milk were the last to go), along with, thank goodness, subsidised exports. The EU has replaced them with direct income support. Agriculture is still the largest item in the EU’s budget at 38 per cent, but down from 73 per cent in 1985.

Finally, one, rather astute, reader argued that the Ivory Coast should have thanked Hershey for taking delivery of the December futures market. By doing so, Hershey pushed the world cocoa price higher, taking some of the old crop cocoa (that had been weighing on prices) off the market. He may have a point.

Instead of manipulating the world price, what should Ghana and Ivory Coast do to help their impoverished growers? I posed that question this week to the head of one of the leading NGOs in the sector. I will publish his replies shortly.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

Cocoa economics


Cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast went on strike last week in protest against the low prices they are currently being offered for their crop. They have also threatened to block port warehouses where more than 100,000 tonnes of cocoa have backed up due to a lack of demand. A farmers’ representative told Bloomberg that farmers are only being paid 800 CFA francs per kilo against the state-guaranteed minimum price of 1,000 CFA francs, roughly $1.85/kg.

Covid19 is partly to blame for the lack of demand. The FT (subscription required) reports that the virus has disrupted ‘sales of chocolate at airports, hotels, restaurants and speciality boutiques’. As a result, world cocoa demand fell 2-3 per cent last year, prompting processors and chocolate manufacturers to delay shipments on quantities that they have already bought, and hold off on new purchases. This drop in demand has hit the Ivory Coast particularly hard. Together with Ghana, the country produces 60 per cent of the world’s cocoa.

Ghana and Ivory Coast work together more closely than in the past, setting similar ex-farm prices and reducing smuggling across their borders. In 2019, they looked at ways to increase farmers’ incomes and discussed setting a minimum export price. They eventually rejected the idea and instead introduced a ‘Living Income Differential’ (LID), a $400 per tonne premium that buyers had to pay over the world price, starting with the 2020/21 season.

The $400 per tonne LID was not just a premium over the futures; it was also in addition to the country differentials.

Country differentials (premia and discounts relative to the futures) fluctuate widely; they often depend on the cocoa that the market expects to be delivered against the futures. Processors prefer new crop cocoa to old crop, and the futures can be depressed, for example, if old crop is expected to be delivered.  For the 19/20 season, exporters probably paid an average premium of about £75 for Ivory Coast and £125 for Ghana, as these purchases were made starting in September/October 2018.

The larger cocoa processors – particularly the ones with factories in Ivory Coast – have paid LID on their 2020/21 purchases, but they have had difficulty passing it on to their buyers. Unlike Fairtrade or the Rainforest Alliance, LID doesn’t come with a certificate that can be handed on to the chocolate manufacturers. Without a certificate, manufacturers can’t put a label on their retail packaging, nor ask their customers to pay more.

Rather than pay LID, Hershey was reported last month to have taken delivery from the December futures contract: a mixture of the old crop cocoa from West African, Ecuador and Sulawesi.

In response, Ivory Coast and Ghana launched an unprecedented media campaign against Hershey. They also threatened to suspend the company’s sustainability programmes in the two countries. It is not clear what arrangement Hershey made with Ivory Coast and Ghana, but it has been reported that Hershey has agreed to pay the Living Income Differential. Still, as Hershey does not buy directly from the Ivory Coast, it is unclear how that works.

It is also unclear how Ghana and the Ivory Coast expected LID to work in the first place.

By asking their customers to pay $400 per tonne more for Ghanaian or Ivory Coast than for other cocoa, chocolate manufacturers had a strong incentive to buy alternative origins. Ghana and Ivory Coast have tried to stop this by putting media – and local – pressure on the big chocolate companies. Still, the big companies account for less than half of the world’s chocolate production and an even smaller percentage of beans.

The cocoa market is looking at a surplus this year of up to 300,000 tonnes. Because of LID, this surplus is now primarily made up of cocoa from Ivory Coast and Ghana. At this time of the year, the Ivory Coast would have customarily sold all of this crop, most of their mid-crop and a significant chunk of the following main crop. Instead, they still have an estimated 500,000 tonnes to sell from the 2020/21 season and a similar quantity from the 2021/22 crop. They have not sold anything yet for 2022/23.

Cocoa is what is known as a ‘front-loading’ commodity. The harvest runs from October through March, with shipments concentrated during this period; processors then store the cocoa and use it throughout the year. With storage costs at around £12 per month, it is not surprising that buyers have been delaying purchases, aggravating the build-up at the origin. Time is on the side of the buyers; they can afford to wait.

The inevitable has happened: both Ghana and Ivory Coast have reduced prices to tempt buyers. Country differentials have fallen to a discount of £150 – 200 per tonne. Unfortunately, they have little success even at those prices; buyers have either already bought elsewhere or are waiting for prices to fall even further.

But isn’t this just bad luck on the part of Ghana and Ivory Coast? Wouldn’t LID have worked if the balance sheet had been in deficit rather than surplus? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is ‘no’.

If there had been a deficit, the outright cocoa price would indeed have risen. Unfortunately, neither Ghana nor Ivory Coast would have been able to sell if they had continued to ask for a premium of $400 per tonne over the market. The world price could have gone to the moon, but they would still have asked for $400 per tonne more. To move their crop, the country differentials would have been reduced – probably to levels similar to where they are today. As with all farmers, it is the outright price that matters, not the differentials.

So, what is to be done? With hindsight, the obvious answer would have been to go with the two countries’ original idea and set a minimum price, not a differential. Even then, with a market in surplus, the world price would have fallen below the minimum price; Ivory Coast and Ghana still wouldn’t have sold. The minimum price would have become a maximum price with the market only buying it when it was needed.

It is sad to say, but cocoa economics are the same as everyone’s else’s economics: the only cure for low prices is low prices.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

Rising food prices

With grain and soybean prices reaching levels not seen since 2014, I expect that the media will soon be writing about global food shortages. There will be accompanying calls for governments to intervene to cap domestic food prices. There will also be calls to control the markets and ‘punish’ speculators.

Last week already, a group of scientists warned that the world was ‘facing a ghastly future of mass extinction’ and that the continued growth in world population is driving soil degradation and biodiversity loss. The scientists included Prof Paul Ehrlich from Stanford University, author of The Population Bomb, published in 1968. In that book, Prof Ehrlich warned that the population explosion would lead to hundreds of millions of people starving to death (in the 1970s).

In an interview in 2018, Prof Ehrlich commented that although ‘details and timings of his predictions were wrong, his book was correct overall’. He said: ‘Population growth, along with over-consumption per capita, is driving civilisation over the edge: billions of people are now hungry, or micronutrient malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people.’ He still believes that the world will run out of food and that millions will starve.

He is not the first to think this. In 1798, the English clergyman Reverend Robert Malthus wrote his famous Essay on the Principle of Population in which he predicted that the world’s population would be checked by famine. Malthus argued that the world’s food supply grew arithmetically, while the world’s population grew geometrically.  He wrote: ‘The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.’

Malthus believed that God had made it that way to teach humanity ‘virtuous’ behaviour. He believed that humankind should lead a subsistence life, and he predicted a future of ‘misery and vice’.

When Malthus wrote his essay, there were about one billion of us humans on our planet. Since then, the world population has increased more than eight-fold. Agricultural production has more than kept pace, so much so that the world is now struggling with obesity, not starvation.

Population growth is not currently driving grain prices higher. Rather, it is a mixture of bad weather, poor crops, well-intentioned, but inappropriate, government intervention, and a rush of imports into China as the country rebuilds both its stocks and its pig herd. To that heady mix, you have to add financial factors: inflation fears and a weakening dollar.

Nor will population growth drive grain prices higher in the future. The growth in agricultural production – largely through yield increases – continues to outpace population growth. This correlation contains an important causality: the growth in agricultural yields has permitted the growth in world population. There is no reason why this should suddenly change.

But what about temporary shortages – how can we deal with them?

The growth in yields over the past seventy years has led to such a huge increase in agricultural production that roughly 40 per cent of US corn production – and 50 per cent of European rapeseed production – is now used to fuel cars rather than humans.

Could crops currently used for fuel be diverted back to food in times of high food prices? This already happens on a huge scale with sugar in Brazil. When sugar shortages develop and sugar prices rise, millers produce more sugar and less ethanol.  Western countries have even less flexibility in corn or rapeseed, largely because of government-set ethanol and biodiesel mandates.

Not only has agricultural production increased enough to feed the population and fuel our cars, but it has also allowed us to eat more meat. A staggering 98 per cent of the world’s soybean production – and 36 per cent of US corn production – is fed to animals to produce meat and dairy. Animals are rather inefficient in converting grain and beans into meat. It takes 25 kg of feed for a cow to produce one kilo of edible meat and it takes 15 kg of feed for a sheep to produce one kg of lamb. (The figures for pork and chicken are 6.4 kg and 3.3 kg respectively.)

Could some of that animal feed be diverted back to direct human consumption? In theory, yes. In practice, it would take a large increase in meat prices to reduce meat consumption, and then only with a relatively long time lag. It wouldn’t happen quick enough to solve a temporary grain shortage.

Increased agricultural production and low food prices have also encouraged waste. It is often said that 30 per cent of food is wasted. Waste occurs in developing countries through unharvested crops, poor storage and a lack of refrigeration. Food waste in rich countries occurs in supermarkets, restaurants, and the kitchen. I am not sure that 30 per cent figure is correct, but even if it is, it is doubtful that much can be done about it in the short to medium term.

All this means that the short-term solution to high grain prices lies on the supply side. High prices will encourage farmers to plant more for the next season while at the same time encourage the whole supply chain – from the farm silo to the supermarket – to draw down stocks.

Modern-day markets have become so efficient that prices now rise in advance of shortages. Futures markets trade the future; they solve the problem before it occurs. Anything that interferes with – or delays – these price signals (such as government intervention) will in the end only makes matters worse.

© Commodity Conversations ®

This is part of a series of ‘long reads’ called ‘Why food doesn’t have to cost the earth’.

How we got here

Our planet is roughly 4.5 billion years old. Our human ancestors appeared on Earth around 66 million years ago. Still, as we know ourselves today, humans have only existed for the last 2 million years, the vast majority of that time as hunter-gatherers.

Humans may have begun to grow crops on the Sea of Galilee’s shores about 23,000 years ago. However, agriculture proper did not start to develop until 12,000 years ago when hunter-gatherers in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ began growing wild varieties of crops like peas, lentils and barley. They also herded wild animals like goats and oxen in the region.

Historians disagree as to why our ancestors made the structural shift from hunting and gathering to farming. Some argue that a changing climate left them no alternative but to seek alternative sources of foods. Some suggest the transition was more a result of our perpetual drive to improve our condition. Others even suggest that a love of beer drove them to give up their nomadic lifestyles. Archaeologists estimate that 40 per cent of early wheat production went to make beer—the oldest barley beer dates to 3400 BC.

In broad-brush terms, historians divide agricultural progress into three stages. The First Agricultural Revolution defines the move from hunting-gathering to farming that occurred 7-10,000 years ago. The Second Agricultural Revolution refers to the mineral fertilisers and the industrialisation of farming and farm processing in the 19th century. We are still living through the Third Agricultural Revolution, or the ‘Green Revolution’, that began in the middle of the 20th century. It involved improved crop yields through breeding and the introduction of agricultural inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides.

Farming changed little during the first 10,000 years of human history. Farmers regularly left fields fallow, and animal manure was the sole fertiliser. In the early 1800s, scientists began to understand that inorganic minerals such as nitrogen, potassium, lime, and phosphoric acid could replenish depleted soils.

The search for fertiliser led merchants and scientists to the dry seabird islands off the South American and South African coasts, where immense deposits of bird droppings, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, had accumulated over centuries. Guano mining became a profitable business. Between 1840 and 1880, guano nitrogen made a vast difference to European agriculture, but the best deposits were soon exhausted. However, miners found rich mineral nitrate deposits in Chile, and nitrates gradually replaced guano in the late 19th century.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan writes that the great turning point in the modern history of agriculture can be dated to the day in 1947 when a munitions plant in Alabama switched away from making explosives to make chemical fertiliser instead. He explains that at the end of World War II, the US government found itself with a surplus of ammonium nitrate, the principal ingredient in making explosives. Ammonium nitrate is an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides were the product of the US government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes.

Even though the Earth’s atmosphere is about 80 per cent nitrogen, nitrogen atoms have to be split and joined to hydrogen atoms (‘fixed’) to make fertiliser or bombs. A German Jewish chemist named Fritz Haber worked out how to do that in 1909. Before he made that discovery, all the usable nitrogen on Earth had to be fixed by soil bacteria or electrical lightning, which breaks down nitrogen bonds in the atmosphere.

In his book, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production, Vaclav Smil explains that ‘there is no way to grow crops and human bodies without nitrogen’. Without Haber’s invention, the small amount of nitrogen that bacteria and lightning alone could release would have limited the number of people that agriculture could support.

In his book, Mr Smil argues that the Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrogen (Bosch commercialised Haber’s idea) was the most important invention of the 20th century. He estimates that 40 per cent of the people on Earth today would not be alive without Haber’s invention. Without synthetic fertiliser, billions of people would never have been born.

Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for ‘improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind’, but, since then, he has since largely been airbrushed out of history. During the First World War, he helped the German war effort by making bombs from synthetic nitrate. Worse, he also developed poison gases, including Zyklon B, used in the Nazi concentration camps.

The Haber-Bosch process works by combining nitrogen and hydrogen gases under immense heat and pressure, supplied by electricity. The hydrogen is provided by oil, coal or, most commonly today, natural gas. As such, Michael Pollan argues that once humanity had acquired the power to fix nitrogen, the basis of soil fertility shifted from a total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new dependence on fossil fuel.

Farming, which had historically always been a process of converting sunlight into food, has become a process of converting fossil fuels into food. More than half of the world’s supply of usable nitrogen is now human-made—and farmers use more than half of all the synthetic nitrogen made today to grow just one crop: corn.

Some excess nitrogen evaporates into the air, acidifying the rain and contributing to global warming. Some seep down to the water table and the rivers. Mr Pollan writes:

‘The ultimate fate of the nitrates spread in Iowa or Indiana is to flow down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, where their deadly fertility poisons the marine ecosystem. The nitrogen tide stimulates the wild growth of algae, and the algae smother the fish, creating a ‘hypoxic’, or dead, zone as big as New Jersey–and still growing. By fertilising the world, we alter the planet’s composition of species and shrink its biodiversity.’

He is right, of course. The world would be a very different place if it were not for the advances in agriculture and agricultural technology that occurred over the past century. Admittedly it would probably be less polluted, and we might eat better, but two out of five of us probably wouldn’t be here. And of the remaining three, at least one would go to bed hungry every night.

Some might argue that the world would be a better place if there were 40 per cent fewer of us on the planet. But, personally, I am happy to be here.

© Commodity Conversations ®

This blog is the first part in a series of ‘long reads’ that I have called: ‘Food Doesn’t Have to Cost the Earth’.

Image from Pixabay