New research estimates that land grabbed in impoverished areas by wealthy countries and large corporations has the potential to feed up to 550 million people. Close to 80 million of acres of quality land in developing countries have been sold or rented to foreign investors since the year 2000, and this number is set to climb even higher in coming years.
With rising food prices comes an increased demand for cheap land, and this is exactly what has been happening since 2008 when global food prices tripled. Latin America, Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing the most land grabbing. Wealthier countries lacking access to stable food sources buy up cheap plots in these areas, where they cultivate food to be shipped back to their domestic populations.
Many foreign investors are also buying up inexpensive land abroad in order to cultivate plants to be used in the production of biofuel. Huge swaths of land in Gabon, Zimbabwe and Malaysia have been bought up in large scale land grabs, displacing many small farmers and eliminating the food supply of surrounding areas. No policies exist to limit crop export, leaving local food sovereignty dismantled.
Professor Maria Cristina Rulli from Politecnico di Milano in Italy declares that “policymakers need to be aware that if this food were used to feed the local populations it would be sufficient to abate malnourishment in each of these countries, even without investments aiming [increase] yields.”
In many developing countries, especially throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, governments own much of the land. They see these territories as unused and empty, even though local communities may have been cultivating a livelihood there for many generations. Leasing and selling this land is easy money for governments.
Looking past the negatives of land grabbing, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank have pointed out the developmental opportunities provided by this huge level of investment. They propose that the influx of technology and experience could help move local farmers in a better direction, and that improved infrastructure typically accompanies foreign investment. Instead of condemning land grabbing, these international organizations are asking that governments and investors be more inclusive of the voices of local farmers in their land deals.
These voluntary guidelines, however, offer no real protection to locals or accountability structures to the big actors of the buying and selling. Hannah Stoddart, head of policy for food and climate change at Oxfam, observes that “the world already produces enough food for everyone, yet one in eight people go to bed hungry every night … Stronger land rights are crucial to ensure that affected communities do not lose out.”
– Kayla Strickland