Op Ed: The Global Land Rush for Food and Fuel

Jing Jin discusses the consequences of outsourcing production, capitalizing on natural resources and looser regulations in other countries...


By Jing Jin via the Cornell Daily Sun, 4/1/13

Land grabs are nothing new — the imperialist scramble for Africa being the most egregious example — and neither are agricultural land grabs, such as the fruit plantations of the Central American “banana republics.” Outsourcing production has always meant capitalizing on the natural resources of another place and more recently, it has also meant capitalizing on loose environmental and labor regulations in less developed countries.

A 2012 Oxfam briefing reports that in the past decade, an area of land equal to eight times the size of the U.K. has been sold in rapidly accelerating global land transactions. According to Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center, a Brazilian-Japanese venture is planning to farm 54,000 square miles of land in northern Mozambique for food exports. These agribusiness schemes exacerbate the problem in areas of chronic hunger and malnourishment and have farmers growing cash crops for export, rather than food crops for consumption.

As the Brazilian-Japanese partnership ProSavana shows, it’s no longer just the developed countries playing a game that Anuradha Mittal of the Oakland Institute calls a “new form of colonization.” Mittal points to Indian corporations’ land grab in Ethiopia as a case in which South-to-South exchange of technical expertise and resources has been used to pay lip service to profit-oriented, rather than development-oriented, foreign investments.

Contrary to expectations for social and economic benefits, the Oakland Institute found that foreign investments that went to non-food export crops — such as sugar — benefited from tax incentives and did not spur substantial job creation. Such results are consistent with ones in Sudan, where the United Arab Emirates was growing sorghum – a Sudanese food staple — to feed camels, and in Sierra Leone, where a Swiss biofuel operation provided 50 jobs — far short of the 2,000 it promised to create.

The pressure to control land will only intensify with population growth, lower crop yields and increasing insecurity of food and energy supplies. Global food production, supply and prices are at the mercy of local climatic conditions, and a localized hazard can instantly become globalized, according to Troy Sternberg of Oxford University. Sternberg has drawn out the connections between a once-in-a-century winter drought in China and the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer.

Agriculturally poor nations are compelled by insecurity at home to seek food supplies abroad, but doing so incites further insecurity abroad by depleting food sources and displacing farmers. In terms of agribusiness, raising cash and biofuel crops are less ecologically sound practices and contribute to environmental degradation and ultimately, to localized climate disasters that set off ripples of insecurity.

The Arab states, which are highly vulnerable to drought and fluctuations in global food supplies, are absolutely unwilling to move away from carbon-intensive fuels. Paul Krugman of The New York Times writes that as much as one-fifth of some Arab states’ budgets go to subsidizing gasoline and cooking fuel. The insistence on exhausting oil reserves and resistance to developing a more diverse and secure global energy portfolio contributes indirectly, but not insignificantly, to rising instability.

Jockeying for energy supplies has also brought the land grabs to developed countries’ backyards. Since strident environmental activism has stalled the transnational Keystone XL pipeline, Canada has been looking to send its exports beyond the U.S. Following a Chinese state-run oil giant’s takeover of a domestic energy company, Prime Minister Stephen Harper assured those wary of increasing foreign control of energy resources that only in “exceptional” circumstances would companies owned by foreign governments be allowed to acquire properties in the Alberta oil sands.

In the U.S., the transition from coal to natural gas, brought on by stricter environmental regulations and low gas prices, has also turned exporters to China. The Obama administration has granted “ultra-cheap” coal leases in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. In the relatively green states of Oregon and Washington, there has been fervor over the pollution from mile-long coal trains and ecological destruction from the construction of new ports. In short, residents of the Pacific Northwest don’t want to pay the human and environmental costs for someone else’s energy use, just as countless communities in developing countries haven’t wanted to pay for the industrial and agricultural ventures of other nations.

Although the increasing land deals have intensely local consequences, the mechanisms behind them operate at the level of national governments, transnational corporations and international financial institutions. Like Canada, Argentina and Brazil are planning to limit or ban new land concessions. The Oxfam briefing also calls for the World Bank to freeze its land investments, as it has done before due to social concerns, and evaluate its practices. Local unrest can generate attention, but in this case, change needs to be top-down.

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