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Response to "Land grabbing: feeding the world or the corporate bottom line"

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

Andrew Noble, Senior Research Fellow at the International Water Management Institute, responds to Fred Pearce's blog post "Land grabbing: feeding the world or the corporate bottom line."

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)[i] intimates their high level of productivity and diversity exceed those of large scale farming systems.

Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT



Our focus within the CGIAR and the CGIAR Research Programs  in particular is that we are looking at problems of today within agriculture and not preparing for the agricultural landscape that will exist in the future (i.e. 5, 10, 20 years from now). I believe the agricultural landscape will be quite different with significant migration of people to urban areas seeking better opportunities. We are already seeing this and with an aging farming community and little recruitment of young people to the sector.

I believe that young people do not want to continue in the drudgery of farming that their parents have gone through. Their aspirations are way beyond the farm gate and they should be allowed to pursue their ‘dreams’. Unless we change the status of farming within the wider community and society that promotes a vibrant, exciting and rewarding career, I am of the opinion that we will have failed in our mandate to address the plight of smallholder farmers. There is almost a romanticization of smallholder agriculture and the perception of toiling in the hot blazing sun chipping weeds or being at the behest of the vagaries of climate is somehow seen as what people are longing for.  I have yet to see a mass migrate of city folk flocking to the countryside to become smallholder farmers, I for one have no interest in giving up my lifestyle for that of a smallholder farmer in Africa!

There is certainly a place for smallholder farmers and as I say in my recently presented speech in Canberra ‘they are the food machine of the world with 2 billion of them producing more than 70 percent of all global food’.  However as I wrote in the proceedings paper that will be out soon:

The recently published report by the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change (Beddington et al., 2012) provides a comprehensive assessment of the challenges and solutions to food security within the context of climate change that encapsulates sustainable and efficient use of natural resources. A comprehensive set of recommendations are made for policy makers that would contribute to ensuring that we stay within the planetary boundaries.  However, the rate of change and transitions that are occurring is questioning our ability to manage this complexity. These transitions include but are not limited to, the urban transition where a greater proportion of the global population is living in cities; the nutrition transition  that has led to changes in dietary habits and the consumption of greater processed foods and meat products; the climate transition where increases in global temperatures are influencing the water cycle; the agricultural transition that is being forced upon us because of the huge increases in food demands in the face of reduced resources; and the energy transition from inexpensive fossil fuels to renewable energy resources (Rogers, 2012)[ii]. All of these are happening simultaneously at differing rates that will require flexibility in the way we manage these changes.


Photo: Ilse Pukinskis



The agricultural transition that is core to our sphere of interest will be influenced to a lesser or greater extent by the transitions mentioned above and will dramatically change the face of agriculture particularly in developing and emerging countries. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa where there is considerable potential to expand and intensify agricultural production systems, there is the notion that this can be achieved through small-scale farmers, the current mainstay of the food production system, by improvements in technology and its transfer, and functioning markets.  This may be a somewhat myopic view of agricultural transformation in sub-Saharan Africa particularly if one assumes that the region will inevitably follow the same development trajectories that have occurred in North America, Europe, Australia, Brazil and currently occurring in Southeast and East Asia where de-population of rural areas have resulted in land consolidation, mechanization and the development of commercial farming systems.

Further, it is argued that this transformation of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa will be influenced by the impacts of climate change. By moving towards large scale commercial farming systems it offers opportunities in addressing land and water resource degradation through improved technology transfer and the enforcement of conservation measures. This is not to say that ‘large’ is better than ‘small’ but rather that we need to be more flexible in the way we see agriculture transforming in developing and emerging countries and that sovereign governments actively play a leading role in facilitating this transformation.

I do feel that our greatest challenge will be securing food for the urbanized sector of the global population where the likelihood of food insecurity will become extremely high as this sector grows with a larger proportion of this ‘community’ being job insecure, poor and volatile. Making sure this sector of our community is adequately fed will be crucial. As I say, we should not see smallholder farmers as the only option in addressing future food demand and we should widen our perspective of what the future agricultural landscape will look in 10-20 years from now and prepare for it.


It is interesting how you have observed the impact a corporate bottom can have. Thanks for your sharing. Congratulations again on a good job Andrew.

Is this the emergence of 'commercialized national sovereignty', where national sovereignty is trumped by economic imperatives? and is not land-grabbing really also a case of water-grabbing? what role for international law in this complicated debate??