Corporate Land Grabs Threaten Food Security

Article excerpt

Wealthy countries are buying up farm land in poorer countries - with global consequences. These controversial land grabs hurt local workers and ecosystems, and dangerously tip the scale of the world's food economy.

Proponents of the local food movement like to talk about keeping "food miles" to a minimum. Buying a New Zealand apple in New England is a big no-no. Imagine if instead of stores buying fruit from the South Pacific, the government was buying land in South America to produce "our own" food.

Yet that is what's happening all over the world, as wealthy countries buy or lease large tracts of land in poorer countries for agricultural production and export. At the same time, financial institutions and agribusiness are chasing land as an investment in the expanding biofuels market. Poor governments are often too eager to comply, offering up what they deem "idle" or "unused" land, but which is frequently inhabited and farmed by indigenous populations.

While no one knows the exact number of these controversial deals (called land grabs by critics), hundreds have been reported in the media. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that up to 49 million acres of farmland were the subject of such negotiations between 2006 and 2009 alone.

Widespread consequences

In conferences and numerous reports, intergovernmental organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have consistently promoted the idea that these deals can be "win-win," where poor countries receive some combination of money, infrastructure, and resources in exchange for their land.

Land rights advocates, farmers' and peasants' groups, and a slew of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have held firmly against this trend. They argue that these land deals spur an assortment of negative consequences, including ecosystem destruction, worker exploitation, loss of livelihoods, food insecurity, and market distortion toward agribusiness and global trade.

A recently leaked World Bank report cited in the Financial Times suggests they may be right: "Investors in farmland are targeting countries with weak laws, buying arable land on the cheap and failing to deliver on promises of jobs and investments," the Times summarized. …