Today's supervillains are soooo boring. If only they'd wear tights and touch entrapped damsels’ hair in a way that made us uncomfortable, we'd be up for patriotically pistol-whipping them, Captain America style. Instead we find out that Wall Street and ethanol — a diffuse network of trading computers and a colorless inebriant, respectively — are the reason billions are going hungry in the developing world. How are we supposed to launch a hideously expensive vendetta-war against that?
The takeaway from Brandon Keim's excellent writeup of a study conducted by researchers at New England Complex Systems Institute is that if you want to model the extraordinary run-up in food prices worldwide, you have to include both large dollops of speculation by financiers and the increasing diversion of farmland and corn to ethanol, which is now consuming more than half of America's corn crop.
“There’s a literature of a hundred-plus articles, saying this might be the cause, or that might be the cause,” said network theorist Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute. “We looked quantitatively, and found two important factors. Speculators cause the bubbles and crashes, and ethanol causes the background rise.”
All this speculation was a result of — surprise! — deregulation. Lifting controls on agricultural commodities markets in the 1990's meant literally anyone could bet on the future price of corn and other staples. The result has been a bubble of epic proportions.
"You had trillions of dollars go into commodities from the housing and stock markets, and it blew away the pricing mechanisms," network theorist Yaneer Bar-Yam told Wired Science.