A question was asked of us on Twitter using the hashtag #askGPP, by RB_Phan:
How serious has the trend for speculators and rich nations buying up agricultural land in Africa and other undeveloped areas become?
In mid-2008, global food prices sky-rocketed. Key foods like wheat, rice, maize doubled or trebled in price, driven by increased consumption in the booming economies of China and India, falling supply after crop failure from natural disasters, and compounded by arable land being shifted to biofuel production and speculation on international markets.
Some countries panicked in response. Russia banned wheat exports. Vietnam banned rice exports. And, a few countries started to purchase large tracts of land in other countries, to secure their own supply of food in the future.
I first read about it in the Economist last year, and was staggered to see the sheer scale of what was happening. Saudi Arabia, China, some of the Emirati city-states and others purchased farms through their sovereign wealth funds, state-owned companies, or directly as the state. Naked in their self-interest, they were out to ensure that their citizens had enough to eat well into the future.
Spanish NGO Grain published a fascinating report on the topic towards the end of 2008, and has more recently setup a website - farmlandgrab.org - dedicated to tracking what’s happening. More recently, John Vidal wrote a great article on the topic in the Observer in March.
Some have argued that it’s a new form of imperialism, the rich stealing from the poor; others have said that it’s simply the market at work.
From my point of view, as someone committed to seeing an end to extreme poverty, it’s something to keep a close eye on. In and of itself, it’s not a problem - people have been buying and selling land in other countries for decades. But, it’s part of broader movement of the securitisation of resources, one that risks positioning global food supplies as a geopolitical issue with security considerations.
Food - along with fresh-water - is not just a commodity. It’s part of the global commons, an assured human right, and a foundation stone of the fight against poverty. Tonight, almost a billion people will go to bed hungry, not because there’s not enough food, but because they can’t afford it.
The global community has an obligation to deal with issues in food supplies as a challenge of the commons, not as 193 competing states. The land grab that we’re witnessing should be seen as an early warning sign that we must work harder on cooperation to deal with these common challenges, because the consequences of failing to act are huge.