Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Land Grabs

Food, Fuel, and the Global Land Grab
By Lester R. Brown

Growing demand for food and fuel has put pressure on the world’s agricultural lands to produce more. Now, a trend in “land grabbing” has emerged, as wealthy countries lease or buy farms and agribusiness in poorer countries to ensure their own future supplies. The result may be further economic disparities and even “food wars.”
World grain and soybean prices more than doubled between 2007 and mid-2008. As food prices climbed everywhere, some exporting countries began to restrict grain shipments in an effort to limit food price inflation at home. Importing countries panicked. Some tried to negotiate long-term grain supply agreements with exporting countries, but in a seller’s market, few were successful. Seemingly overnight, importing countries realized that one of their few options was to find land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves.
And the land rush was on.
Looking for land abroad is not entirely new. Empires expanded through territorial acquisitions, colonial powers set up plantations, and agribusiness firms try to expand their reach. Agricultural analyst Derek Byerlee tracks market-driven investments in foreign land back to the mid-nineteenth century. During the last 150 years, large-scale agricultural investments from industrial countries concentrated primarily on tropical products such as sugarcane, tea, rubber, and bananas.
What is new now is the scramble to secure land abroad for more basic food and feed crops—including wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans—and for biofuels. These land acquisitions of the last several years, or “land grabs” as they are sometimes called, represent a new stage in the emerging geopolitics of food scarcity. They are occurring on a scale and at a pace not seen before.
The “Grabbers”: Searching for Stable Food Supplies
Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, and India are among the countries that are leading the charge to buy or lease land abroad, either through government entities or through domestically based agribusiness firms. Saudi Arabia’s population has simply outrun its land and water resources. The country is fast losing its irrigation water and will soon be totally dependent on imports from the world market or overseas farming projects for its grain.
South Korea imports more than 70% of its grain, and it has become a major land investor in several countries. In an attempt to acquire 940,000 acres of farmland abroad by 2018 for corn, wheat, and soybean production, the Korean government will reportedly help domestic companies lease farmland or buy stakes in agribusiness firms in countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, and Ukraine.
China is also nervous about its future food supply, as it faces aquifer depletion and the heavy loss of cropland to urbanization and industrial development. Although it was essentially self-sufficient in grain from 1995 onward, within the last few years China has become a leading grain importer. It is by far the top importer of soybeans, bringing in more than all other countries combined.
India has also become a major player in land acquisitions, with its huge and growing population to feed. Irrigation wells are starting to go dry, so with the projected addition of 450 million people by mid-century and the prospect of growing climate instability, India, too, is worried about future food security.
Among the other countries jumping in to secure land abroad are Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For example, in early 2012 Al Ghurair Foods, a company based in the UAE, announced it would lease 250,000 acres in Sudan for 99 years on which to grow wheat, other grains, and soybeans. The plan is that the resulting harvests will go to the UAE and other Gulf countries.
Tracking the Trends
Accurate information has been difficult to find for those tracking this worldwide land-grab surge. Perhaps because of the politically sensitive nature of land grabs, separating rumor from reality remains a challenge.
At the outset, the increasing frequency of news reports mentioning deals seemed to indicate that the phenomenon was growing, but no one was systematically aggregating and verifying data on this major agricultural development. Many groups have relied on GRAIN (www.grain.org), a small nongovernmental organization with a shoestring budget, and its compilations of media reports on land grabs. A much-anticipated World Bank report, first released in September 2010 and updated in January 2011, used GRAIN’s online collection to aggregate land-grab information, noting that GRAIN’s was the only tracking effort that was global in scope.
World Future Society