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Land grabbing: Feeding the world or the corporate bottom line?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

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?

Land Grabbing Photo: CIAT



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." [1]  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.

 [1] “Can Africa be the world’s bread basket?” presented by James Siggs at the Agriculture Investment Summit Europe in London, in June 2011


Increasing awareness of the politics and realities of land-grabbing is an urgent priority in fighting food insecurity. But it’s important to remember it’s not just about land. Industrial irrigation also deprives local people of access to water. Land-grabbing deals often give buyers free and unrestricted access to water, which may turn out to be even more important than land in the long-term.

While ‘many western-funded grabs are for growing biofuels’, let’s not also forget about the increasing numbers that are also for carbon offset and plantation forestry monocultures.

See http://youtu.be/17QxF61PVC4 for an example about Uganda.

this post is from Green Ink

Feed the overpopulation we have now is not easy. definitely have to change many of our habits and that as the gobiernodebe stop thinking few, private companies must also cooperate. You can not allow more people continue to die from lack of food. Between us we can make agreements or proposals to the government. Show our interest. I'll write for now to my country http://www.agronet.gov.co page

Can we please stop perpetuating this pernicious myth that we have to double food production. Half the food produced ends up as waste. We could easily feed the world's population on the food we currently produce with better post harvest handling and better distribution systems. The big corporates love the "double food production" mantra because it provides the rationale for land grabbing and industrial monocropping.

This is indeed a grave problem. In Ethiopia, for instance, Saudi Arabian investors spent US $100 million to raise various grains there for consumption at home, while the World Food Program spent $116 million shipping food aid to Ethiopia to feed an indigenous population threatened by starvation and malnutriiton. This is nothing short of insanity.


On Terry's point above, I make the same point myself quite often, and hope to return to it here on another occasion. Fixing the waste problem may not be "easy", however.

Waste and biofuels are definitely problems for food supply, and I suspect neither will be easy to fix in the short-term. Ed Carr had a good post on the subject a couple of days ago: No timebomb here, y’all.

It seems to be nice informative post. Liked reading it. Thanks for the share.

Hi Myriam, Thanks for your comment! The Director of WLE, Simon Cook, is at GCARD. We've been retweeting and promoting some of the GCARD posts. Great work going on over there!

Have you looked at the Zambian model? That seem to be the best with regards feeding the poor.
Do you know about the 30 000 ha wheat project in Central Mozambique? By no means the best area for growing wheat but that's what India and China want. No land is allocated in this area unless they grow wheat. Central Mozambique could be, and should be, the fruit basket of sub-Saharan Africa. Do we have to feed Asia before our own people?

Andrew Noble, Senior Research Fellow at the International Water Management Institute, responds to this blog post.

"My concern with land grabbing for foreign food sovereignty is that it should not be promoted at all and that this should not be confused with commercial agriculture. Further, I do feel that we need to think clearly about smallholder farmers and as Chambers (1997) intimates their high level of productivity and diversity exceed those of large scale farming systems."

Read his full response here: http://wle.cgiar.org/blogs/2012/11/12/response-to-land-grabbing-feeding-...

The representation of a corporate bottom as it appears in this blogs has provided a new wind of fresh air in the matter. Thanks for the wonderful article it has really helped me. I like this one Fred.