You can always tell what asset is valued most in a society at any given time by what is stolen.
How many of you out there remember watching old movies about the Wild West and seeing the cattle rustling scenes? Waiting for darkness, the gang of outlaws would quietly approach a herd of cattle and stealthily divide some animals from the herd, then stampede them away whooping and yelling and very pleased with themselves. Later in time, in the 20th century art, gold and cash would be the objects of glorified heists. In recent years the value of commodities has soared and we find ourselves full-circle reading not only about cattle rustling once again but nut, corn and even maple syrup rustling. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) cargo thefts cost the U.S. $30 billion per year, and according to a cargo theft monitoring network associated with the National Insurance Crime Bureau the most frequently stolen item is food.
This past year in our neighborhood of New England in the U.S., 50 cows were stolen out of a dairy barn in Dartmouth Massachusetts in the middle of the night. Stealing 50 dairy cows in New England is not easy or quick for that matter. There is not much open space and cows cannot be stampeded off like in days of old. Doing so would cause a lot of angry neighbors and traffic tie ups. It must have involved multiple trucks and trailers and much planning. The cows were recovered two days later over 260 miles away at a large livestock auction facility in Pennsylvania after the owners had a hunch that that was where they would be taken.
In Northern California two truckloads of walnuts worth $300,000 went missing after not arriving at their destinations in Florida and Texas. Pulled right from a Natasha and Boris cartoon, deputies are looking for a heavy set man with a thick Russian accent and believe that the walnuts ended up on the black market in Mexico. Did anyone else not know there was a walnut black market in Mexico? Or that Russians were supplying it? Me either. Even more in demand than walnuts are almonds. According to the Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network (ACTION) 660,000 pounds of almonds, or $1.5 million worth of almonds were stolen in California in 2012. In one case on April 19th and May 4th two shipments of almonds equaling 88,000 pounds were stolen from Sunny Gem in Wasco, California. The men who came to the facility to pick up and transport the almonds to their destinations had forged paperwork and identifications. Almond rustling in California has gotten so bad that growers and processors are using GPS technology to track their nuts.
Canada is not immune. Cases of thoroughly planned out and sophisticated food theft have been occurring there as well. In the first week of December 465 tons of corn worth $137,000 was stolen out of three silos on a farm in Saint-Léonard-d’Aston. The farm was equipped with an electric security alarm and surveillance cameras which were both deactivated before no less than 12 large container trucks were loaded with corn and driven away.
One of the highest valued thefts occurred this year in Canada as well. Six hundred barrels of maple syrup worth $30 million were stolen from a facility in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford in August. The syrup was transferred from the barrels in which it was being stored into other containers before being stolen in order to cover up the theft for as long as possible. The syrup was not discovered missing until a routine inventory check was done and the barrels were discovered to be empty. In most cases of commodity theft it is very difficult to recover the stolen assets. In this case the maple syrup was tracked to Kenjwick, New Brunswick, Canada to an export company and recovered. The exporter stated that he bought the syrup from the company’s usual sources at the usual market price and had no idea it was stolen.
As supplies tighten, demand rises and values increase criminals are realizing that stealing food is much easier, and just as profitable as stealing money - what with its pesky serial numbers, dye packs and bank security. We are entering a time of strange combination of the past and future – we are back in the wild west of cattle rustlers but also a time where nuts are tracked by GPS. You can tell what is held in highest value by what is being stolen. Today, more and more the answer to what is held in highest value is becoming “food”.