The Winter 2009 issue of Food First News reports that last November the World Summit on Food Security in Rome issued a declaration that the world is now hungrier than ever before. Significantly, this is not the result of food shortage, with world production at 11/2 times that needed to feed every man, woman, and child on the planet. The root cause of this insecurity is the food system itself, which is controlled by a handful of global monopolies.
In fact, the crisis comes at a time of record global profits for the world's agri-food corporations. Archer Daniel Midland, Cargill, Monsanto, General Foods, and Wal-Mart all posted profit increases in 2008 of 20% to 86%. For Mosaic, a fertilizer subsidy of Cargill, profits increased by a stunning 1200%. The World Food Summit did nothing to confront the hunger crisis. The lack of any political will in Rome was so low that not one head of state from a G-8 country showed up (except for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who of course lives there). With a shocking lack of commitment the G-8 representatives decided to drop the goal of ending world hunger. Now the rich countries need only work to halve hunger by 2015.
In a situation with many parallels, in November the US Department of Agriculture reported an alarming increase in food insecurity in the US; one in seven Americans don't get enough food throughout the year. The USDA report refers to household food shortages, yet in the US, as in the world, there is no food shortage. An obvious question comes up: why, in the most productive farming country in the world, do we have so many hungry people? The answer is that families simply don't have enough money to buy the food they need.
The reasons for this aren't hard to find. The nation's food workers make up 18% of all workers in the US. But those who pick, process, pack, and serve our food are the lowest paid of any industry. This is analogous to the global situation, where most of the world's hungry are poor farmers. In both cases women and children suffer the most.
While more than 1 billion people in poor countries aren't sure where their next meal is coming from, many chronically food-insecure countries are selling their land, as Raphael Grojnowski reports in the same issue of Food First News. Sudan, Ethiopia, and Cambodia, for example, have already sold nearly 40 million hectares of their best agricultural land to foreign investors, mainly from the Middle East, China, and South Korea. This is a classic imperialist land grab that, like those familiar from the past, leads to a steady deterioration of the condition of human beings, not to mention degradation of the environment.
Spurred by the global food-price crisis and supply shortages in the volatile world food market, wealthy but food-deficient countries are buying up vast tracts of land, especially in Africa. There they expect to grow food and fuel long distance. Promising new technologies and employment to some of the world's most neglected areas has many poor governments rushing to attract these new investments.
These land deals are negotiated in total secrecy and are having devastating effects on local farmers and their families. To make room for the new foreign mega-farms, small farmers are being dispossessed of their land. In their place, huge monoculture plantations to feed foreign consumers are being established, using industrial farming techniques that have extremely damaging environmental effects, such as chemical contamination of rural water supplies.
While many peasant organizations are relentlessly drawing attention to this devastating land-grabbing, the UN and other agencies have been characteristically slow to act. At last year's World Food Summit three UN agencies and the World Bank finally announced plans to draft a code of conduct for such "foreign land acquisitions." But the proposed guidelines are only a non-binding and voluntary code. Worse yet, its implementation is scheduled for late 2010, leaving investors another year to make secret deals for prime agricultural real estate overseas.
Activists and researchers in the United States are raising the alarm on what they call the “land grab” in Africa. Outside governments and foreign corporations have been turning increasingly to African countries to purchase large areas of land, to the dismay of activists, who say economic mistakes of the past should not be repeated.
Oakland Institute executive director Anuradha Mittal recently co-authored a report called “The Great Land Grab.”
“Land grab is the trend of buying up farmland by private investors from food-insecure, but rich nations in third world countries, especially in Africa, which is displacing people,” said Anuradha Mittal. “But more important, it is called ‘land grab’ because it is the grabbing of resources, which are absolutely essential for ensuring food security in these countries.” From mid 2008 until late last year when its report was released, the Oakland Institute recorded 180 such land transactions, many of them in Africa.
In New York, the Institute of the Black World 21st Century recently organized a round-table discussion called the “New Scramble for Africa.” The group’s president, Ron Daniels, explains.
“The first scramble for Africa was the carving up of Africa in the Berlin Congress of 1884 by various European powers,” said Ron Daniels. “This looks like the new scramble, the 21st century version of it with nations like China, obviously leading the way because it has a tremendous appetite and then of course India, and Korea, and even some of the European nations, also, and some of the Arab nations.”
Big contracts for land have been made across the continent in the past two years. Sometimes these were accompanied by celebrations, such as in January 2009, when the European multi-national Addax International partnered with Sierra Leone’s government to make ethanol from sugar cane on thousands of hectares. Qatar recently gained access to 40,000 hectares in Kenya for crop production, while China bought more than 100,000 hectares in Zimbabwe.
On the other side of the debate, investors, foreign buyers and local leaders say such long-term land leases will create thousands of jobs and bring in much needed revenue.
But Daniels says the types of jobs which would be created, such as day labor, security and local management, are not worth it. He says African governments should resist the initial temptation to sell away land and instead encourage local production and long-term welfare.
“That is a no-brainer,” he said. “I would trade ownership and economic infrastructure for jobs any day, because if you own and you create infrastructure, you can generate jobs.”
Investors also say better farming techniques will be brought to Africa, and that much of the food will be sold locally. Mittal does not believe these promises.
She points to the history of fruit plantations in South America and south-east Asia.
“We know when countries have given up the principles of food self-sufficiency, when they have forgotten to promote the interests of small-scale farmers, who are the producers of food in third world countries, we have only seen hunger grow,” she said. “So it is not about whether we believe the corporations or not, we have to believe the evidence and the past experience that exists for communities around the world.”
Oregon-based environmental journalist Bryan Nelson wrote a recent article in which he called the current African land grab “neo-colonial.” But he believes it is still possible for local farmers to defend their rights.
“These farmers need to be organizing at a grass-roots level so that it is not just every individual farmer against these large multi-national corporations,” said Nelson. “They need to make sure that they are going to benefit on a local level and that there are programs in place that are going to share the profits and the benefits of developing this land with that local community.”
He also says foreign exports should be stopped whenever there is a food crisis in the country from which a company is operating. Mittal is much more worried. She says African countries which have brought in massive investment for extracting oil, rubber and diamonds, despite some infrastructure also being built, have been marked by high levels of unrest, and that the same could happen for land.
“It is the next blood diamond,” said Mittal. “We are going to see more political instability, we are going to see more rioting, as people say enough is enough, this land is ours.”
She also warns of environmental degradation when large scale, industrial farming practices will be brought to unpolluted areas.
Activists and investors do agree that after the world housing market collapsed, African land became a widely-sought cheap commodity.
What they clearly disagree on is whether this trend is good or bad for local populations.
In the aftermath of Copenhagen, many observers are lamenting the apparent unwillingness of governments to confront climate change. However, this unwillingness simply reflects an essential truth about public policy: The immediate always trumps the distant. For most policymakers, the threat of climate change remains a distant one. Governments prioritize immediate threats, even if doing so hastens the melting of glaciers and the rising of sea levels that may eventually destroy habitats and nations.
Another vivid illustration of this mindset is the acquisition by foreign governments of vast tracts of farmland across the developing world. These land deals leave immense carbon footprints and threaten widespread environmental destruction, but are justified by both land-acquiring and land-ceding nations as a necessary response to pressing concerns about food security. This is no isolated trend. According to the United Nations, 74 million acres of farmland in the developing world were acquired in such deals over the first half of 2009 — an amount equal to half of Europe’s farmland.
Food-importing nations, with memories of the skyrocketing global food costs and supply shortages of 2008 still fresh, are increasingly fearful about the volatility of world commodities markets. Given their rising populations and disappearing arable land, such countries have good reason to be afraid. As a result, some food importers, particularly in the Persian Gulf and East Asia, are now foregoing imports altogether and instead investing in foreign farmland to use for food production. They are joined by private agri-business firms, which perceive farmland as a wise investment in a food-insecure era. Meanwhile, nations whose land is targeted, many of them dependent on international food aid, are desperate for agricultural investment. Though blessed with arable land, their farm yields are flat and their agricultural sectors flagging. Heavy doses of foreign capital, they reason, will enhance farming technology, improve crop yields, and ultimately end hunger. Although these hoped-for effects are not guaranteed, many governments in these countries welcome foreign interest in their land, and actively seek out prospective investors by dangling tempting tax incentives. Pakistan has even offered a 100,000-strong security force dedicated to protecting such investments.
Foreign land investors favor the large-scale industrial agriculture techniques popularized by the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s. However, these methods are anything but green. Forests are torn down to accommodate the need for large cultivation areas. To maximize high crop yields, investors use diesel-spewing tractors, pesticides, fertilizers, and other fossil-fuel-based technologies. Deep plowing and heavy water use degrade land and tax natural resources. Such environmentally destructive agriculture differs markedly from the organic forms of farming now gaining popularity in the developing world. This all portends an environmental nightmare. The prime targets of farmland investment — Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America — are home to most of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests. Industrial agriculture could fell considerable areas of this forest land and release vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. The world’s largest tropical rainforest, the Amazon, is particularly vulnerable. Land investors are increasingly turning their attention to South America, a region boasting a slew of tantalizing qualities, including nutrient-rich soil, water-laden farmland, and ample land for rain-fed crop production.
In short, major portions of the world’s carbon-storing ecosystems could be destroyed, leaving aggressive regimes of carbon-emitting industrial agriculture in their wake. Yet don’t expect such scenarios to prompt those most responsible to modify their behavior. Investing countries, intent on satisfying immediate food needs, are driven by short-term calculations that rule out longer-term considerations about environmental sustainability.
Meanwhile, host governments are unlikely to pressure land-hunters to pollute less. They have little incentive to antagonize deep-pocketed investors who promise high levels of farming capital, technology, and infrastructure. Predictably, Cambodian farmers’ groups report that Phnom Penh is setting aside national regulations on forest protection and preservation so that foreign firms can convert forests into large-scale plantations. By taking such positions, investors and hosts succumb to a flawed line of zero-sum reasoning. Improving food security, they seem to suggest, means disregarding environmental concerns. Yet in reality, food security is enhanced by greener farming. For example, crop yields can be increased through organic agriculture. Additionally, environmentally destructive farming practices can endanger food security. Furthermore, investors often appropriate unoccupied land they deem fallow, and use it for industrial agricultural production — even though some people depend on this land as a source of wild food. This can stir anger and unrest among local populations, jeopardizing the stability of farming investments and consequently the food security of investing countries.
Key stakeholders in large-scale land acquisitions must acknowledge these linkages between food security and the environment, and act accordingly. At the least, investors and hosts should embrace the more small-scale model of contract farming, which affords green-minded local communities more control over how their land is used for food production.
Additionally, the media and environmentalists must intensify their focus on the environmental costs of international farmland transactions. The partners to these agreements are more likely to be swayed by shaming campaigns than by international codes of conduct or other normative mechanisms, which would lack the teeth to elicit compliance — particularly from the largely undemocratic governments involved in the deals in question. Finally, the international community must strengthen the available alternatives to safeguarding food security in environmentally friendly ways. One such alternative is a fledgling — but promising — initiative to establish regional food reserves that countries can draw upon when local food supplies are exhausted or threatened. If such policies are not given proper attention, then so long as the global race for farmland continues, the assault on the environment will as well — with troubling implications for food security.