It’s been going on for several decades; large agrifood corporations have been buying, leasing or farming land in foreign countries to expand and develop their businesses. But the pressure on farm land has gone up a level over the past two years as new players have entered the game: sovereign wealth funds are taking over additional growing areas, but private investors, for whom the transaction is a purely speculative endeavour, are also involved.
Sovereign wealth funds refer to State-owned investments or when the State itself becomes the land buyer. Examples of such are China, South Korea, South Africa and Middle Eastern countries, which are currently buying land, tens of thousands of hectares at a time, in poverty-stricken countries, preferably: Indonesia, Uganda, Sudan or the Congo, to name just a few. The movement seems to be intensifying on a daily basis. There’s a feeling of uneasiness in the air. Countries are seeking to ensure their own food procurement and protect themselves from the precariousness of farm product prices.
Let’s take China, for example. It barely has 7% of the earth’s agricultural land, but needs to feed 20% of the world’s population. Famine is a constant concern and looms heavily over China’s population. Furthermore, the country’s social stability is still a huge challenge. We can obviously understand why China would want to reduce its food dependency. Especially since a growing number of Chinese want and have the means to eat better. So China is buying large parcels of land in Africa and is growing food to feed its own people.
However, delocalizing agricultural production may cause a problem. In order to sell the farm land, local communities who work and live off it sometimes need to be driven away. In China’s defence, to pursue this example, some maintain that it will work the land more productively and succeed in feeding more people with the same area of land than local communities could ever think of doing. In fact, new land operations under its management will provide locals with employment. And finally, the product of the land sale could be used to improve the poverty-stricken country’s infrastructures – as long as these funds aren’t embezzled by corrupt government authorities. But what happens when land is requisitioned, not to produce food but to produce biofuels, as is the case with almost 3 million hectares in the Congo?
Added to mix are speculators. Investment companies are currently buying up fertile lands with the sole purpose of reselling them at a good price. More than ever, agriculture appears to be a sure thing: the world will always need to feed itself and emerging countries will supply increasingly creditworthy consumers. In fact, agriculture is becoming quite appealing and there is no lack of suitors. A healthy diet, produced with the lowest possible number of intermediaries equipped with a certified pedigree, is becoming a dream that only the most fortunate can and want to afford.
The question of monitoring fertile land is very complex, and extremely political. The World Organization for Agriculture (momagri), whose aim is to guarantee more harmonious development of agricultural systems throughout the world, will certainly be interested in this issue. Nonetheless, the notion of agricultural cooperatives as stakeholders shouldn’t be dismissed. The protective role usually entrusted onto such cooperatives has become even more obvious in this situation. By providing farmers with leverage that will allow them to achieve economies of scale and to be more farm-efficient, cooperatives are the framework for a strong network of support and solidarity. Therefore, farmers are given a much better chance of remaining masters of their own domain, keeping their dignity and pride and bringing the fruits of their labour to national or international markets.