After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Explain the context for the rise of financialization in the food system.
- Outline the core debates amongst scholars of financialization
- Identify the main manifestations of financialization in the food system and how they impact social and ecological outcomes
Have you ever wondered how decisions made in the abstract world of financial markets affect something as intimate as the food you eat? Did you know that the investment landscape of food and agriculture has significantly changed in the last two decades, in ways that influence your choices at the grocery store? The reality is that we live in a highly financialized era, that is, profits made through financial markets—rather than productive activities—are taking on a greater share of our economy. In big and small ways, our food systems are being shaped by financial investment patterns. It is important to understand such structural forces in our food systems, as they profoundly shape realities on the ground, often in unsustainable ways. If we want to have any hope of changing those realities, we must know how the system is structured and which levers to pull.
The academic literature on financialization gained momentum after the 2007–08 financial crisis, and has grown rapidly in the last decade. It is a broad area of scholarship that originates predominantly from political economy and geography, but is also informed by other disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, and development studies. Mainly, scholars of financialization seek answers to and explore the implications of the increasing role of finance in the economy. At its core, the literature on financialization contributes to the study of contemporary capitalism. Its primary contribution is to challenge the belief in the neutrality of money, that is, the literature on financialization critically analyzes the financial system.
There are many definitions of financialization. A common one is by economist Gerald Epstein, who describes financialization as “the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of domestic and international economies”. Another, by historical sociologist Greta Krippner, emphasizes the abstraction from the real economy: “Financialization is the tendency for profit making in the economy to occur increasingly through financial channels rather than through productive activities”.
Scholars identify different causes for the increased financialization of the economy from macro-, meso-, and micro-levels. A macro-level interpretation relates to the crisis of capital accumulation. Since the 1980s, capital has accumulated increasingly through financial rather than productive means, as Krippner’s definition suggests. The thrust of the argument is that declining profits in the manufacturing sectors of industrialized countries encouraged financial deregulation, which was meant to stimulate the stagnant economies of the 1980s and gave rise to finance-led growth. Globalization is one of the primary drivers of this structural shift, as companies in the Global North increasingly moved their production off-shore and began to control foreign supply chains in order to keep costs low and remain competitive internationally. Rather than reinvesting profits into the business, they were increasingly distributed to shareholders or invested in financial products.
The meso-perspective relates to the shareholder revolution that arose in the 1980s. At this time, non-financial companies began acting more like financial firms, in the sense that they re-oriented their strategies to maximize shareholder return. The revolution of shareholder activism tied business performance to the compensation of executives through stock options, which tends to result in more short-term value creation, rather than long-term investments in innovation. By the late 1990s, the shareholder value model of corporate governance became conventional wisdom and spread around the world, gaining prominence not only in North America, but also in Europe, Japan and emerging economies.
A final, micro-level aspect is the concept of the financialization of daily life. This refers to the fact that, increasingly, people must resort to financial products to manage life stages and life goals. Other themes that fall under the financialization of daily life include discourses around risk-taking and self-management, and the way that state policies influence everyday habits of savings and borrowing. While the 2008 financial crisis helped to expose the interconnection between households and global financial markets, the financialization of daily life was already well underway. The first factor relates to the erosion of the Fordist social contract prevalent in the United States and Canada, starting in the 1970s, whereby employers provided certain forms of security through living wages, meaningful pension, and health insurance. The second factor occurred around the same time, when the Keynesian-inspired welfare state started to dismantle, pushing many citizens around the world to turn to financial products to underpin their livelihood security.
Since financialization scholars attempt to make sense of a host of complex interactions, it is no wonder that there has been such a wide variety of empirical studies on the topic. This mushrooming of the financialization literature has come under scrutiny, however. For instance, Christophers views financialization as the “buzzword of the 2010’s,” arguing that it is both conceptually and empirically limited. His critique largely stems from the lack of analytical clarity of the concept of financialization and he cautions scholars researching the topic to be conscious of its theoretical limits. Lawrence and Smith wrote a response to Christophers’ arguments, defending financialization as a “concept-in-the-making.” Their main rebuttal was that rather than viewing financialization as intellectually vacuous, more rigorous studies of financialization are needed to better understand the phenomenon. As financialization has gained traction among a variety of scholars, there has been more research into how the process of financialization incorporates ‘non-financial’ actors. Financialization in the food system is one such example, and represents an important body of literature for contextualizing how large-scale financial investment patterns and the rise of shareholder value influence social and environmental outcomes in food systems around the world.
Financialization in the food system
The activities of the financial sector have become increasingly enmeshed in food and agriculture. Just over a decade ago, the financialization of the food system captured scholarly interest when it first became widely apparent in the area of agricultural commodities. From 2002–08, the FAO Food Price index rose by 125 percent, spiking dramatically between 2007 and 2008 at the height of the food crisis. Although a confluence of factors contributed to this situation (including rising energy prices, increased costs of agricultural inputs, and droughts around the world), many pointed to the dramatic increase in speculative financial activity in agricultural futures markets as a core driver. The high food prices of the food crisis hurt many poorer communities around the world as they struggled to afford to feed themselves. Exorbitant food prices incited riots in different parts of the world, including Egypt, Haiti, Bangladesh, and Mexico. The far-reaching impacts of the food crisis demonstrate how financial investments can have very real repercussions for people’s lives.
Financialization in the food system is demonstrated in part by the involvement of a new group of actors such as pension funds, private equity firms, hedge funds, and sovereign wealth funds in food and agriculture investments. Spurred in part by the food price crisis, new financial actors in the food system also moved swiftly into farmland investments. Though financial investors had long dismissed the agricultural sector as unpredictable and unprofitable, they turned their focus to farmland, and agriculture more broadly, during the 2007–08 financial crisis, as higher commodity prices and the prospect of stable, risk-adjusted returns provided a promising alternative to traditional investments, which were floundering at the time. Other factors, such as a rising global population, greater demand for meat, and biofuels made agricultural land an appealing investment. The interest in farmland has stuck, and between 2005 and 2017, institutional investors (e.g., private equity funds, hedge funds, pension funds) and high-net worth individuals invested an unprecedented forty-five billion dollars (US) in farmland. However, it bears noting that investor interest in farmland ebbs and flows depending on a variety of factors, including changing regulations around which actors are allowed to invest in farmland. For example, in response to dramatic price increases of agricultural land in Saskatchewan, in 2015, pension funds and trusts of more than ten people were banned from acquiring farmland in the province.
Initially, the land rush predominantly took place in emerging economies and prompted concerns around tenure rights and land access for small-scale farmers in these countries. One egregious example involved South Korea’s Daeweoo Logistics, which was negotiating a 99-year lease of half of Madagascar’s arable land. Had the deal gone through, the company could have exported all of the produce grown on the Malagasy land and imported all labour from South Korea, as the governance stipulations were weak. The scale and nature of the deal caused public outrage and was a primary cause for the ousting of the president at the time. Though this one deal did not move ahead, Africa is a popular target of land grabbing by foreign entities, which raises many concerns regarding African countries’ food security and food sovereignty. Over time however, higher income countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia have also attracted private and institutional investment in farmland. This has served to drive up the cost of rural land in these countries, making it difficult for new or small-scale farmers to enter the market.
Such investments in agricultural land tend to entrench the industrial model of agriculture, as they target large tracts of land destined for commodity and monoculture farming. This type of agricultural production is highly mechanized and involves the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and is a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions—among other negative environmental externalities.
At the institutional level, non-financial firms such as agrifood businesses—like seed and agrochemical companies, food manufacturers and processors, and grocery retailers—are being reshaped by financialization while also profiting from it. For instance, agricultural trading firms such as Cargill are increasingly involved in financial activities to generate profit. Cargill is made up of a number of business units and subunits. The company produces and trades seed, feed, fertilizer, and agrochemicals. It is also a “landowner, cattle rancher, maker of transportation vehicles, biofuel producer and a provider of financial services,” through subsidiaries such as Black River Asset Management. Black River acquires private equity in agricultural companies, indirectly controlling land in various countries around the world, which demonstrates the connection between agricultural companies and farmland.
Another way that financialization affects business behaviour is by motivating firms to participate in mergers and acquisitions in order to generate value for shareholders. There is therefore an indirect connection between rising financialization and rising corporate concentration along the food value chain. These activities have led to a situation in which four companies dominate the global grain market, a handful of supermarket chains in advanced economies control the vast majority of food sales, and the top five seed companies have massively increased their market share in the last twenty years. As fewer and fewer companies control the food system, the influence of the few remaining firms becomes more powerful. This growing power allows them to shape rules, regulations, and practices along the food chain to their benefit. Some of the results of rising corporate control in the food system include jeopardizing small farmer livelihoods, environmental quality, food safety, and consumer sovereignty.
Consider the unprecedented acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon in 2017, which has not only expanded Amazon’s reach offline but has also pushed the entire grocery industry towards online shopping and delivery services. Moreover, there are concerns about how the acquisition will affect sustainability outcomes on the ground. As the leadership at Whole Foods changed with the acquisition, many wondered if the new management would uphold the same values of prioritizing local and sustainably produced food. Four years on, it seems as though Amazon has maintained many of Whole Foods’ original commitments to sustainability and traceability, but it is perceived as less nimble from an innovation standpoint and less able to support local companies, now that it has centralized its buying practices. This reality limits its ability to support more diversified, regional food systems, which is understood to support greater resilience and sustainability.
Ultimately financialization makes it difficult for more sustainable, alternative food systems to develop and thrive. In particular, the prioritization of shareholder value—whereby maximizing shareholder returns are sought over long-term or ethical goals—tends to increase corporate concentration through mergers and acquisitions (because these activities generate strong dividends). This trend crowds out chances for economic diversity in the food system and limits opportunities for smaller and more sustainable alternatives to scale up and out. In-depth research on the power dimensions of the food system has demonstrate how neoliberalized markets have a tendency to become dominated by a handful of corporations. When markets become skewed in this way, companies have the power to shape outcomes to their benefit and the already disadvantaged end up bearing the brunt of costs. The financialization of agricultural commodity markets have hurt consumers around the world as food prices rise and become increasingly unaffordable. The meteoric rise in farmland investments has also had profound repercussions for social and environmental justice. For instance, many of the crops grown on land bought by foreign investors in poorer countries are exported, instead of feeding local and often food-insecure communities. Moreover, these investments tend to entrench the industrial model of agricultural production, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, degrades soil fertility, and is highly polluting.
Inconspicuous, structural forces like financialization can often go unexamined in daily life. To bring about food system change, however, it is necessary to make the invisible visible, so as to understand the leverage and pain points in a system. Reading and learning more about financialization at the macro-, meso- and micro- levels is one way of advancing your knowledge of the barriers and opportunities that exist for transforming food systems, towards more sustainable and regenerative outcomes.
Discussion Q uestion s
- What are the three levels of financialization and how are they connected to the financialization of the food system?
- How do you see the presence of financialization in your daily food provisioning practices?
- Who owns the farmland in your region? Does it matter who invests in farmland? How might farmland ownership impact social, economic, and environmental outcomes in your region?
Land Grabbing Role Play
In groups of approximately six students, engage in a role-playing game to understand the perspectives of various stakeholder groups associated with large-scale farmland investments (also known as land grabbing).
Scenario: A large land deal is being negotiated in which institutional and foreign investors are poised to acquire 100,000 acres of some of the most fertile land in your region. There is significant opposition to the deal, but it promises to be very lucrative. A town hall meeting is being held to discuss possible ways forward.
- pension fund manager
- foreign state investor
- provincially elected government official
- domestic food consumer
Assuming one of the roles identified above, present your arguments for or against the deal and identify possible areas for compromise. Once everyone in the group has had a chance to present, discuss the issues, tensions, areas of agreement or conflict, and anything else that piqued your interest. Be prepared to share and discuss your observations with the rest of the class.
ETC Group Reports: The ETC Group is a non-profit organization that investigates and reports on ecological erosion; the development of new technologies, and global governance issues including corporate concentration. They often focus on the food system.
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- van der Zwan 2014. ↵
- Epstein 2005, 3. ↵
- Krippner 2011. ↵
- Arrighi 1994. ↵
- Clapp 2015. ↵
- van der Zwan 2014,104. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Schmidt 2016. ↵
- van der Zwan 2014, 109. ↵
- Christophers 2015. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Lawrence & Smith 2018. ↵
- Schmidt 2016. ↵
- Lawrence & Smith 2018, 31. ↵
- Schmidt 2016, 105. ↵
- Laperouse 2016. ↵
- Magnan 2018, 110. ↵
- Wittmeyer 2012. ↵
- Magnan 2018. ↵
- Foley et al. 2011. ↵
- Salerno 2014, 1710. ↵
- Bonny 2017. ↵
- Fuchs et al. 2013. ↵
- Cox 2021. ↵
- Clapp & Isakson 2018. ↵
- Howard 2016. ↵
- Ibid., 2. ↵
- Ibid. ↵