policies and the 2008 financial and food crisis ignited a worldwide ‘land rush’
that’s increasing world hunger without addressing the underlying long term
threats to world food security Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
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Grabbing the world’s ‘unused land’
In the past three years, foreign
governments and investment companies have been buying or leasing vast tracts of
farmland in Africa and elsewhere for producing biofuels or food for their own
This ‘land rush’ was
triggered by the demand for biofuels, and accelerated  with the financial
and food crisis of 2007/8 (see  Financing World Hunger, SiS 46).
promoting biofuels are based on the mistaken belief that fuels made from
plants are ‘carbon neutral’, in that burning them would simply release the
carbon dioxide fixed by photosynthesis and would not increase greenhouse gases
in the atmosphere. The European Union is aiming for10 percent of its transport
on biofuels by 2020  (Europe Unveils
2020 Plan for Reducing C Emissions, SiS 37). George W. Bush, for his
part, proposed to cure the US’ “addiction to oil” by increasing federal budget
22 percent for research into clean fuel technologies including biofuels to
substitutes for oil to power the country’s cars  (Biofuels for Oil Addicts, SiS 30).
The hope is to replace more than 70 percent of oil imports from “unstable parts
of the world” - the Middle East - by 2025.
Meanwhile, the United Nations
Food and Agricultural Organisation helpfully identified
immense areas of ‘spare land’ in developing countries that could be used for
planting ‘bio-energy’ crops to be turned into biofuels.
The World Bank’s recent report on the 2008 commodities price hike includes a diagram
entitled  “The stock of unused but potentially arable land is enormous”, depicting
more than 700 million hectares of ‘unused’ land in sub-Saharan Africa, and more
than 800 m ha in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Corporate farming for the rich
International agribusinesses, investment banks,
hedge funds, commodity traders, sovereign wealth funds, UK pension funds,
foundations and ‘individuals have been snapping up some of the world's cheapest
land, in Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Ethiopia, Congo, Zambia, Uganda,
Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ghana and elsewhere. Ethiopia alone has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007. Any land
investors can’t buy is leased for about $1 per year per hectare. In
many cases, the contracts have led to evictions, civil unrest and complaints of
“land grabbing”, John Vidal reports in UK’s Guardian .
Nyikaw Ochalla, an
indigenous Anuak from the Gambella region of Ethiopia now living in Britain but in regular contact with farmers in his region, told Vidal : “All of the land
in the Gambella region is utilised. Each community has and looks after its own
territory and the rivers and farmlands within it. It is a myth propagated by
the government and investors to say that there is waste land or land that is
not utilised in Gambella.
companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have
used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population.
The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people
coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands….People cannot believe what
is happening. Thousands of people will be affected and people will go hungry.”
Indian companies, backed by government loans, have bought or leased
hundreds of thousands of hectares in Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal and Mozambique, where they are growing rice, sugar cane, maize and lentils to
feed their domestic market.
The Ethiopian government denied the deals were causing hunger and said
that the land deals were attracting hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign
investments and tens of thousands of jobs. A spokesman said that Ethiopia has 74 m hectares of fertile land, only 15 percent is currently in use. Of the
remaining land, only 3 to 4 percent is offered to foreign investors.
Local government officers in Ethiopia said that foreign companies were
not being charged for water, and in Awassa, the al-Amouni farm set up by Saudi
billionaire businessman, Ethiopian-born Sheikh Modhammed al-Amoudi, uses as
much water a year as 100 000 Ethiopians.
Saudi Arabia and other Middle
Eastern emirate states, Qatar, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, are thought to be the
biggest buyers of African land. In 2008, Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East's largest wheat-growers, announced it was to reduce domestic cereal production
by 12 percent a year to conserve water. The government earmarked US$5 bn to
provide loans at preferential rates to Saudi companies to invest in countries
with strong agricultural potential.
Saudi Arabia is also leasing land
from other countries such as Pakistan , already water-stressed,
water-depleted. Ayesha Siddiqa, a strategic
and political analyst said the idea is for individual landowners to
lease to investors, opening the door to large-scale corporate farming. “Big landowners who are now renting out their land
to small farmers will throw them out and put it up to the highest foreign
bidder,” she said, predicting that small landholders with 5-10 acres would be
bought out, and “landlessness and rural poverty will increase.”
hunger and landlessness
Land grab has
indeed intensified since the 2007/8 food commodity price crisis. The
international not-for-profit organization Grain produced a comprehensive report warning that :
“If left unchecked, this global land grab could spell the end of small-scale
farming and rural livelihoods.”
Asian Peasant Coalition (APC), with 15 million members in 26 peasant
organizations and 6 other supporting non-government organizations from
Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Pakistan,
launched an Asia-wide protest against the global land grab in July 2009 . It
said that “state terrorism” and widespread land grab in poor Asian countries
took place at the height of the financial crisis.
APC represents farmers, landless peasants, dalits,
forests peoples, indigenous people, agricultural workers, herders, pastoralists, and the women and youths across these sectors
365 million people in Asia derive their livelihoods from land, but,
landlessness in Asia is worsening at an alarming rate over past decade, owing
to  “the greater degree of integration of Asian countries with the global
market, and increasing demands for land by big corporate interests.”
Landlessness among Asian peasants is very high: 49.6 percent in Bangladesh, 22 percent in India, 10 percent in Nepal and almost 75 percent in Pakistan and the Philippines, and the trend is growing, according to Danilo Ramos, APC secretary
encouraged by governments and the World Bank
More than 100
cases of land grab have been compiled by Grain. “Land grabbers” are driven by
two different agendas, but they eventually converge.
first agenda is food security. A number of countries that rely on food imports
see outsourcing food production in foreign land as a long-term strategy to feed
its own people cost-effectively, instead of having to pay the high prices in
the world commodity markets. Saudi Arabia, Japan, China, India, Korea, Libya and Egypt, fall into this category. Foreign governments are buying up farmland
in countries like Sudan, Cambodia, and the Philippines that depend on food aid
delivered by the UN World Food Programme.
second agenda is financial return, in particular, as the result of the
financial meltdown of the housing and stock markets in 2007/8, investment fund
managers have been turning to food and agricultural commodities and derivatives
; and coincidentally, agricultural land and produce are also seen as good
sources of revenue.
these tracks come together  is that in both cases it is the private sector
that will be in control. In the drive for food security, governments take the
lead through a public policy agenda.. But while public officials negotiate and
make the deals for land contracts, the private sector is explicitly expected,
and even encouraged, to take over. It is effectively a ‘new colonialism’ by
for example, has been remarkably self-sufficient in food, though at a cost of using
so much fertilizers that its soils are ruined, and its waterways putrid with
pollution [10, 11] (China’s
Soils Ruined by Overuse of Chemical Fertilizers, China's Pollution Census
Triggers Green Five-Year Plan, SiS 46). The Chinese government has
been gradually outsourcing its food production well before the global food
crisis. Some 30 agricultural cooperation deals have been sealed to give Chinese
firms access to foreign farmland in exchange for Chinese technologies, training
and infrastructure development funds, not only in Asia but all over Africa.
Kazakhstan to Queensland, and from Mozambique to the Philippines, a steady and
familiar process is under way, with Chinese companies leasing or buying up
land, setting up large farms, flying in farmers, scientists and extension
workers, and getting down to the work of crop production,” Grain reports . Most
of China’s offshore farming is dedicated to rice, soybean, and maize, along
with biofuel crops like sugarcane, cassava or sorghum.
Gulf States, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have neither the water nor the soil to produce food. But they have plenty
of oil and money. Because they depend on food imported mainly from Europe, and
their currencies are pegged to the US dollar, the simultaneous rise in food
prices on the world market and the fall in the US dollar have boosted their
import bill from US$8 bn to US$20 bn within the past five years. Given that
water is already in short supply, the Saudi government decided to stop growing
wheat, their main staple, by 2016, and instead, to grow it elsewhere and ship
United Arab Emirates, similarly, under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC), banded together with Bahrain and the other Gulf nations to
formulate a collective strategy of outsourcing food production, particularly to
Islamic countries, where they will supply capital and oil contracts in exchange
for guarantees that their corporations will have access to farmland and export
the produce back home. The most heavily targeted states are Sudan and Pakistan,
followed by a number of south-east Asian countries - Burma, Cambodia,
Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – as well as Turkey,
Kazakhstan, Uganda, Ukraine, Georgia, Brazil and so on.
food industry circles, Japanese and Arab trading and processing corporations
have are the most involved.
Japanese firms already own 12 m ha of farmland abroad for the
production of food and fodder crops, some of that in China, where in 2006,
Asahi, Itochu and Sumitomo began leasing hundreds of hectares of farmland for
organic food production for the Chinese and Korean markets. In 2007, Asahi
expanded to develop the first Japanese dairy farm in China. A year later in
September 2008, Asahi took advantage of the melamine milk tragedy to launch its
first liquid milk product at a 50 percent mark-up.
Japanese firms have also targeted Brazil. In late 2007, Mitsui
bought 100 000 ha of Brazilian farmland for soybean production.
finance industry is getting in on the act. Throughout 2008, an army of
investment houses, private equity funds, hedge funds and the like have been targeting
farmlands throughout the world , with the World Bank and the European Bank
for Reconstruction and Development “greasing the way for this investment flow”
and “persuading” governments to change land ownership laws to ease the
transactions. As a result, land prices have started to climb.
Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs have taken control of China’s livestock industry; its biggest piggeries, poultry farms and meat processing plants,
including rights to the farmland. New York-based BlackRock Inc, one of the
world’s largest money managers with nearly US$1.5 trillion on its books, set up
a US$200 m agricultural hedge fund, of which US$30 m will be used to acquire
farmland around the world. Morgan Stanley, which nearly joined the queue for a
US Treasury Department bail-out, bought 40 000 ha of farmland in the Ukraine, where Renaissance Capital, a Russian investment house has acquired rights to 300 000
ha. Meanwhile, Black Earth Farming, a Swedish investment group, acquired
control of 331 000 ha of farmland in the black earth region of Russia, where Alpcot-Agro, another Swedish investment firm, also bought rights to 128 000
ha. Landkom, the British investment group, bought 100 000 ha of agricultural
land in Ukraine and vows to expand to 350 000 ha by 2011. All these land
acquisitions are for producing grains, oils, meat and dairy for those in the world
market who can pay.
the food crisis worsens for the poor. At the end of 2009, over one billion of
the world’s population are critically hungry, with 24 000 dying of hunger each
day, more than half of them children. The United Nations Food Programme faces a
budget shortfall of US$4.1 billion [12, 13]. Food prices have remained high
despite the economic downturn, and extreme weather patterns affecting production
are causing more hunger.
commentators rightly blame the deregulated financial speculation in the global
agricultural commodities markets for precipitating the 2007/8 world food crisis
, and the ensuing land grab has almost certainly made it worse.
other more serious, longer term threats to food security are in danger of being
overlooked, which no amount of land grab can insure any country or individuals
world watcher Lester Brown reminds us that many past civilizations collapsed on
account of shrinking food supplies, and we may well meet the same fate from 
“our failure to deal with the environmental trends that are undermining world
food economy - most importantly failing water tables, eroding soils, and rising
system collapsing from unsustainable industrial agricultural practices
Our agriculture and food system has been showing
signs of collapse [14, 15], with world grain yields falling to meet demand most
years since 2000, and reserves reached their lowest in 50 years. Growth in
yields has slowed despite record amounts of fertilizers being applied . In
the major croplands of the world – China, India and US, which contain half the
world’s population - industrial farming practices have severely depleted
underground water, dried out rivers and lakes, eroded topsoil, and decimated
wild life with fertilizers and pesticides run-offs. Most alarming is the recent
disappearance of bees and other pollinators (see  Mystery of
Disappearing Honeybees and other articles in the series, SiS 34).
At the same time, world oil
production has passed its peak  Oil Running Out (SiS
25) with the peak of natural gas not far behind . Conventional industrial
agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuels (especially in the manufacture
of N fertilizers), as well as water.
Climate change will slash productivity
In addition, climate change has emerged as a major
threat to agricultural productivity. Direct field monitoring showed that crop
yields fell 10 percent for each ˚C rise in night-time temperature during
the growing season . The International Food Policy Research Institute
predicts that wheat yields in developing countries will drop 30 percent by
2050, while irrigated rice yields will drop 15 percent . Climate change may
hit the developing world harder, but the developed world is not immune.
Increasing frequencies of drought, flood, and storm associated with climate
change will devastate crops and livestock, and spells of extreme heat are also
damaging as plants will start to deteriorate at about 32 ˚C. The yields of
corn, soybean and cotton could fall by 30 to 46 percent under the slowest
warming scenario, or 63 to 82 percent under the fastest warming scenario.
Fuel versus food
The scramble for biofuels by developed nations was a
major factor in precipitating the 2007/8 food crisis  and the ensuing ‘land
grab’, as described here. Policies supporting biofuels such as those of the EU
and US are grossly misguided.
US imported 19.5 million barrels of petroleum a day in 2008, which made up 57
percent of its total consumption . In 2008, 9 billion gallons of ethanol
were produced from 33 percent of the corn harvest subsidized at US$ 6-7 billion,
to supply just 1.3 percent of the country’s oil consumption. It takes 1 700
gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol . Even if all 341 Mt of
corn in the US were to be converted into ethanol, it would provide only 5
percent of the total oil consumption in the country, leaving nothing for
livestock feed or food .
US is a major exporter of corn accounting for over 60 percent of the world’s
export. Globally, the scramble for ethanol from corn and sugarcane and
biodiesel from soybean, oilseeds, oil palm and jatropha resulted in accelerated
deforestation (with large CO2 emissions) as well as forced evictions
[25, 26] (Food
Without Fossil Fuels Now, SiS 42) and land grab.
Biofuels from crops not only jeopardize food production;
they are highly unsustainable, requiring huge inputs of fertilizers and
pesticides as well as water, depleting soil fertility, accelerating soil
erosion and generating a great deal of polluting wastes. A realistic energy
accounting shows that all biofuels except one require more energy input in
fossil fuels than the energy in the biofuel product. In other words, they have
net negative energy returns and hence result in more CO2
emissions than just using the fossil fuels . The
energy returns for the major biofuels are: corn ethanol -46 percent, switchgrass
-68 percent; soybean biodiesel -63 percent; and rapeseed biodiesel -58 percent.
Even palm oil produced in Thailand has a -8 percent net energy return. The only
exception is ethanol from sugarcane in Brazil, with a positive energy return of
128 percent , though it is still unsustainable in other respects.
GMOs definitely not the answer
Are genetically modified (GM) crops desperately
needed for feeding the world and saving the climate as proponents claim? A
three-year assessment by 400 scientists, policymakers and non-government
organization representatives – IAASTD (International Assessment of
Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development)  –
concluded that GM crops are at best irrelevant for food security and poverty
alleviation, and small scale agro-ecological farming is the way ahead  (“GM-Free Organic
Agriculture to Feed the World”, SiS 38).
GM crops are actually much worse
than the high input green revolution varieties they replace, as documented by
the large dossier of evidence we have accumulated over the years [30, 31] (The Case
for A GM-Free Sustainable World, GM Science Exposed,
ISIS publications). They require more fertilizers, more pesticides, more water,
but yield less. GM crops are less resilient to environmental stresses, pests
and diseases and hence highly vulnerable to climate change. But they cost more
because of the corporate monopoly developed around gene patenting  US Farmers Oppose
'Big Ag' in Anti-Trust Hearing (SiS 46). After 15 years of allowing
GM varieties to take over its major crops, the United States is facing
ecological meltdown  (GM Crops Facing
Meltdown in the USA, SiS 46). The same has happened with the
introduction of GM cotton in India, where, in addition, it has accelerated farm
suicides by increasing farmers’ indebtedness  (Farmer Suicides
and Bt Cotton Nightmare Unfolding in India, SiS 45). Above all,
genetic modification introduces specific hazards as I have indicated for more
than ten years  (Genetic
Engineering Dream or Nightmare, ISIS publication). Many scientists now
acknowledge those hazards, some having done their own studies to find out 
(GM is Dangerous and
Futile, SiS 40).
adam brian Comment left 1st October 2010 23:11:57 Although I'm not a scientist I benefited tremendously from this article. I hope things improve in the world. GM is definatly not the way forward. The human being and the earth are delicate. Any interference will upset the balance and lead to the eventual destruction of the earth and all those living on it.
Lucinda Townsley Comment left 26th August 2012 14:02:56 Wow, this was a really enlightening article. I had no idea that our 'green' alternatives to fossil fuels were so redundant and actually just causing more harm! It's really overwhelming and hard to not feel helpless against all of this. For my part I intend to be even more careful about what I consume and where it has come from. Thank you for this article - freedom of information is a great thing. Keep up the good work.