Public and academic debate have focused on whether financial speculation in commodity derivatives can be shown to influence food prices, with knock-on consequences for the world’s poorest people. The stakes are high, as the price spike of 2007-8 is estimated to have pushed a further 40 million people into hunger.

This paper reviews the evidence for and against speculation playing an important part in exaggerating food price volatility, and concludes that much uncertainty remains. It seems that the complexity of both food prices and financial markets, and the limitations of the available evidence, mean that this debate will likely defy definitive resolution.

But evaluating harm caused by actions is only one of the approaches people commonly take to deliberating on the ethics of public behaviour. Alternative approaches – focussing on evaluating conduct or relationships – depend less on being able to determine cause, and may therefore be more helpful to decision-makers when empirical evidence is ambiguous. Our paper considers how some of these wider approaches to ethical thinking might bear on public debate and decision-making about speculation.

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