Private companies across the world are buying huge quantities of foreign land for the mass production of food. Sue Branford wonders if this quick-fix solution risks creating an even bigger environmental crisis.
The world map is being redrawn. Over the past six months, China, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other nations have been buying and leasing huge quantities of foreign land for the production of food or biofuels for domestic consumption. It’s a modern day version of the 19th-century scramble for Africa.
This year’s bubble in food prices – driven by financial speculators, biofuels and compounded when some countries halted food exports to ensure their own supplies – led to pain for nations dependent on imports.
Alarm bells rang, with many governments alerted to what might lie ahead as climate change and soil destruction reduce the supply of food on the world market. The result, a huge international land grab, raises many troublesome issues.
Although governments are encouraging the trend, the acquisitions are generally made by the private sector. Along with agribusiness, corporations and food traders, investment banks and private equity funds have been jumping on board, seeing land as a safe haven from the financial storm.
Indeed, with the supply of the world’s food under long-term threat, investment in land may prove a more solid bet than earlier speculation in dotcoms and derivatives.
Yet from a global perspective, it is difficult to see how such investments can deliver long-term food security. The investors will want a quick return. They will practise an industrial model of agriculture that in many parts of the world has already produced poverty and environmental destruction, as well as farm-chemical pollution.
Furthermore, many local communities will be evicted to make way for the foreign takeover. The governments and investors will argue that jobs will be created and some of the food produced will be made available for local communities, but this does not disguise what is essentially a process of dispossession. Lands will be taken away from smallholders or forest dwellers and converted into large industrial estates connected to distant markets.
Ironically, these very small communities may have a key role to play in helping the world confront the interlinked climate and food crises. Many such communities have a profound knowledge of local biodiversity and often cultivate little-known varieties of crops that can survive drought and other weather extremes.
Scientific studies have shown that farming methods that are not based on fossil-fuel inputs and are under the control of local farmers can be more productive than industrial farming and are almost always more sustainable.
The reason why this year’s food crisis had such a harsh impact, particularly in Asia and Africa, was that many countries had been pushed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other institutions to produce food crops for external markets. They would have been far less vulnerable if they had concentrated first and foremost on feeding their populations through local production.
Many of the countries that are rushing to outsource their food supplies should perhaps be looking first to see if they can produce more of their food locally, even if it means carrying out difficult measures like land reform.
By seeking a quick fix to their food shortage, they may well end up without a long-term sustainable solution. And even if they succeed in generating a steady stream of food imports, they may simply be exporting their food insecurity to other nations.
• Sue Branford works with Grain, an international organisation that supports farmers in their struggle against the privatisation of biodiversity