With food prices on the rise again, World Food Day this week should attract more attention than usual. Food security is back on the political agenda.
That's good. The world needs to think hard about how it can double food productions in the next 40 years -- to keep nine billion people with changing diet expectations fed. And about how to do it while keeping food prices low and stable enough to avoid bread riots.
Food security for whom?
But there are some important questions about the right way to achieve food security that are not getting asked enough. Food security for whom? Is the unleashing of agribusiness the right way to raise productivity? Can markets deliver for the poorest? Will feeding the corporate bottom line also feed the world?
Researching my book on the new global rush for land, The Landgrabbers, I was constantly confronted by these questions. Because foreign investors in land in the poorest countries insist that their higher purpose is not profits but global food security. And because land grabbing is huge.
By Oxfam's estimate, more than 220 million hectares of smallholder farms, pasturelands and forests round the world have been sold or leased by governments to big agricultural investors: mostly in the past five years, and mostly for food production. That's an area the size of the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands combined. Two-thirds of it is in sub-Saharan Africa, the world's least food-secure region.
Put simply, hundreds of millions of the world's poorest and least well fed people are being told to get off their land, to get out of the way so that agri-business can get on with feeding the world. Many prospectuses offered by land-grabbers cite ever-rising world population and demand for meat among their core reasons why investment in land is a good deal. The "Malthusian fear" is thus now the calling card of the land grabbers.
Misguided as a development strategy
Many of the land grabs are profoundly unjust, inflicted on communities by governments. But it is often misguided as a development strategy. Depriving the most vulnerable of the ability to feed themselves strikes me as a crazy strategy for keeping them fed.
Depriving the most vulnerable of the ability to feed themselves strikes me as a crazy strategy for keeping them fed.
For one thing, many of the grabs are not for food crops at all. Many western-funded grabs are for growing biofuels.
For another, food security can be a pernicious concept. Many grabs are being done by corporations at the behest of governments that are not short of food: South Korea, Saudi Arabia, China and so on. The failed Daewoo grab for the equivalent of a quarter of Madagascar's current arable land was only the most egregious example. Whether the Saudis in Ethiopia or the Chinese in Mali, these countries are buying their own food security at the expense of the food security of hungrier nations.
The Agribusiness model
Agribusiness has a model for what it intends. It is Brazil, where mechanised prairie-style farming has spread across the cerrado grasslands – Brazil's equivalent of the much-coveted savannah grasslands of Africa. This investment has turned Brazil into an agricultural superpower. Repeating that is an enticing prospect for African nations.
But two cautions apply. First, unlike its African equivalent, the cerrado is empty of people, in the hands of elite cattle ranchers ready and willing to sell. Second, while the new corporate farmers are turning Brazil into a major food exporter, they are not generally providing food for Brazilians, two-thirds of whom are still fed by small campesinos. Transplanting that model to Africa could create domestic hunger.
Even the World Bank assessment that is widely seen as giving a green light to accelerated land grabs in Africa, Awakening Africa's Sleeping Giant, concedes that: "there is little evidence that the large-scale farming model is either necessary or even particularly promising for Africa."
Or take the words of James Siggs, a British farmer who in 2008 helped establish the Toronto-based Feronia company to bring "US-style large-scale agricultural systems" to, of all places, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Thinking better of it a couple of years later, he admitted at a conference in London that "exclusively industrial-scale farming displaces and alienates people, creates few jobs and causes social disruption."  Quite so.
Rural Africa needs investment for sure. The question is: what kind?
Supporting African smallholder farmers
Gordon Conway, former president of the Rockefeller Foundation and much else, in his new book, One Billion Hungry: Can we feed the world?, out this month, bangs the drum for investing in African smallholder farmers. He lances the lie that they are an impediment to feeding the continent. On the contrary, with a modicum of assistance, they are "in many respects highly efficient [and] produce more per hectare than large farms, [and] will play the dominant role in agricultural development for several decades to come.”
They need to be supported, not marginalised.
Taking their land from them is a recipe for conflict. This summer, the province of Gambella in Ethiopia has been descending into chaos after violent attacks on the encampment of Saudi land grabbers. And it is a recipe for the impoverishment of rural communities, for full granaries but empty stomachs.
 “Can Africa be the world’s bread basket?” presented by James Siggs at the Agriculture Investment Summit Europe in London, in June 2011