Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 20:39 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 20:39 | SYDNEY

Food security: This land was our land

9 September 2010 14:16

My previous post described the early signs that the world might be on the brink of another food crisis like the one it suffered in 2007-08.

That crisis led to a massive increase in foreign investment in agricultural land. While not necessarily an unhealthy practice, the land deals closed in the wake of the last food crisis were mostly short-term strategies to safeguard food availability in the developed world. This did not address the structural challenges Alan Dupont and Mark Thirlwell identified in their recent Survival paper, and even more, ignored long-term sustainability.

Highly criticised in this respect is practice of food-insecure countries and profit-hungry private investors competing in a race for the world's farmland.

In an October 2008 report by the NGO GRAIN, this phenomenon was characterised as 'land grabbing' and subsequently picked up by the media as 'neo-colonialism'. The nature of this practice is best described as wealthy developed countries or private international investors negotiating land deals with governments in developing countries for the lease of agricultural land, preferably for a minimal cost-per-acre and a lease-term of 99 years.

Over the last two years, Africa and Southeast Asia have been targeted, but now Latin American and Central Asian countries are also leasing out their 'idle' or 'waste' land (a characterisation often disputed by local communities).

Take Mozambique, for example, ranked 172 out of 182 countries in the Human Development Report 2009 and with 64% of the population in rural areas and 55% below the poverty line. Then enter foreign investors eager to lease vast amounts of agricultural land, either for food or bio-fuel production.

Hypothetically, foreign investment could bring best-practice farming, new technology, and climate-change-resistant GE crops (see Ronald & Adamchak for an excellent discussion on the potential of GE crops and organic farming in developing countries). But most land deals appear to be firmly rooted in the self-interest of the investor. In the case of Mozambique, there are reports that indicate the signing of land deals with companies from JapanMauritiusChina, and private equity funds.

The ramifications are unclear, although a recent FoodFirst Information and Action Network report details some of the implications in Kenya and Mozambique. The foremost problems of the land deals appear to be their opaque nature, vague obligations and lack of engagement with locally affected communities. Moreover, many are portrayed by the investor as mutually beneficial, but all seem to carry the dangerous potential of playing out as zero-sum land grabs.

Finally, there is the moral issue of safeguarding food availability in wealthy countries (like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and China) while the local population of the hosting country lives below the poverty line and receives food aid from the World Food Programme. Clearly, food goes where money is.

Photo by Flickr user sky_mitch, used under a Creative Commons license.