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Food Speculation: The Ordinary Business Of Life

Before I begin, I should warn you that this talk and paper is a crystallisation of the learning which I am doing in the area of economics. I have taken a liberty in addressing such a number of large topics in a single theme, and hope that it tantalises people to go and form their own investigations on the subject.

This is really, just a glimpse into big questions which touch all of our lives rather than a proposed solution. My hope is that on this journey, I can identify some key concepts and thinkers who help us approach the problems we collectively face, and celebrate the understandings which we do have in a most un-dismal of subjects – economics.

  • food speculation

    Do you own shares ?

  • Do you know where your money is doing it’s work ?
  • Do you have a pension ?
  • Do you know how this is being invested ?
  • Do you eat a brand chocolate bar which is on the stock market?
  • Do you know where it sources the ingredients ?

 

These are a small raft of big questions. I have chosen these as starting points to attempt to contextualise the concepts, ideas and issues which we are going to be looking at throughout this conversation. Context gives meaning to the theories we employ to understand our world…Alfred Marshall in his Principles of Economics (1890) [http://www.econlib.org/library/Marshall/marP.html ] opens the volume out with the statement:

‘Political economy or economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life’.

It will be in this sense that the ordinary business of life will be explored… The concepts which I will be presenting can be seen as a series of tools to help gain a way to navigate economics…

 

What is in a chocolate bar ?

What is very important is that we develop an understanding of the interconnected nature of things, and peoples, individual and industry; of cause and effect, of the simple and complex.

Thinking of what is constituted in a city gives us a sense of how elaborate our everyday lives are; people are involved everywhere in everything. I wake up in a house which is supplied with water, from a managed reservoir somewhere in the hills; I wash and leave the building, designed by architects, tested by engineers and built by artisans of the trades; I walk up the road lit by sodium filled street lamps powered by electricity generated hundreds of miles away by powerstations burning fossil fuels; I get on a bus, driven by a driver around traffic systems programmed by software engineers to ensure that traffic flows, and so forth…

 

 

This exercise of understanding how interconnected people and people, things and things, people and things, and things and people are, is most famously exemplified by an essay by Leonard E. Read called ‘I Pencil, My Family Tree’ [http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html].

It starts: “I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write…”. This short essay takes us through all that goes into the making of a pencil from the materials to the labour to the transport, and takes us to an understanding that

“…millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others.”

He takes us, thinking of a familiar pencil, through the complexity stored within it: “I am made of… a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon….contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting….the logging camps with their beds and mess halls….the cookery and the raising of all the foods….The logs are shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California….Once in the pencil factory—$4,000,000 in machinery and building….The graphite is mined in Ceylon….The graphite is mixed with clay from Mississippi in which ammonium hydroxide is used in the refining process….

Here, in this context of food speculation and stock markets, I shall be trying to wynd through a few of the basic paths which we can take to understand a little more about the relationship between ourselves, the stockmarket and the products which are traded on them.

Taking the example of Leonard Read, I want you to contemplate for a moment what goes into your stock everyday chocolate bar:

 

  • Sugar

  • Cocoa

  • Milk

  • Soy Lecithin

  • Wheat Flour

  • Palm Oil

  • Corn Syrup

 

Here I have taken out the common ingredients found in the chocolate bars which I enjoy and eat occasionally – and occasionally more than I should do. Now, for just a moment, I want you to hold these in mind and imagine all the connections, interconnections, people and resources that go into making each one.

This is an unimaginable task, but as an exercise it takes our perspective to a place which must be realised – that we are all interconnected in some way. Now, more than ever, we are involved on a local level in the global. As Susan Brown says, we are global citizens and must now think about what implications this has on our lives.

As an assignment, I would like you to pick a common ingredient you find in your everyday shopping and write about where it has come from detailing the space it came from, the resources which it required to produce, the human labour which it took to bring it into the form that you get it, etc…

Try and imagine, like Leonard Read did with the pencil, just how much has gone into creating and getting one single ingredient onto your table ready for you to eat.

 

This is the first of the below nine lessons in an online course which came of a talk which was done as a part of the Edinburgh Festival.  The course is called Food: Speculation, Accumulation, Starvation and will be available online via Community Open Online Courses (http://www.coocs.co.uk/)

 

  1. The Ordinary Business of Life

  2. A Short History of the Stockmarket

  3. The Rise of Offshore Business

  4. What are Futures and Derivatives

  5. How Financial Speculation is Artificially Inflating Staple Food Prices

  6. The Production of Scarcity and Famine

  7. The Manipulation and Distortion of The Stockmarket

  8. The Rise of Monopolies and Regulatory Capture

  9. The History of the Corn Laws

 

 

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