Think of the phrase “land grabbing” and if you’re like me you conjure up images of Britain’s colonial past. But land grabbing is more than just a chapter in our history. It is very much a current international problem with far-reaching consequences impacting our goal to end factory farming by 2050.
Land grabbing today is when countries buy or long-lease vast tracts of land in other countries and often in other continents for their own purposes to satisfy their home markets. It is done mostly by wealthier countries which are described as “food-insecure” and private investors.
Who are they and why do they do it?
There are several reasons why. First, food-insecure nations want to ensure their food supply is protected at a time when food riots increasingly take place. According to news reports food riots have already occurred in Greece, Haiti, North Korea, Algeria, Mogadishu, Zimbabwe and Iran. Recent social unrest, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, was prompted in part by concerns over access to food and fuel. Particularly vulnerable food-insecure countries are those with an overwhelming dependence upon imported food (e.g. the Gulf States). Other food-insecure countries are those experiencing rapid economic growth, increasing populations, growing middle class or social instability (e.g. China, Japan and South Korea). Further, as the demand for oil continues and its cost increases, there is growing demand for plant-based alternative fuels (e.g. ethanol) which, of course, needs land for growing the “fuel” crops. Due in part to the recent economic downturn triggered by the international banking crisis, previously undesirable land is now an attractive financial investment.
Which countries are at risk from having their land grabbed?
They are countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Union.
According to Shepard Daniel who wrote “Land Grabbing and Potential Implications for World Food Security” in Sustainable Agricultural Development, which is a new book co-edited by my colleague Joyce D’Silva,
“Qatar, with only 1% of its land suitable for farming, has purchased 40,000 ha in Kenya for crop production, and recently acquired holdings in Vietnam and Cambodia for rice production, and in Sudan for oils, wheat, and corn production.”
This is just one example of land grabbing. The problem is much larger.
The Guardian reported recently on the International Conference on Global Land Grabbing. The conference estimated that more than 80 million hectares of land had been acquired by land grabbing. This is about 300,000 square miles, which is nearly twice the size of California, the third largest state in the United States.
So, what’s all this got to do with factory farming?
Demand for meat, eggs and dairy, which is produced by factory farming and other industrial methods, is growing among increasingly affluent countries, including food-insecure nations. Foreign-controlled land is used to grow food for animal feed for export to those countries which hold the land rights. But, as Shepard Daniel explains,
“Countless studies have challenged the conventional wisdom that industrial farms are more efficient by demonstrating the virtues of small farms as “multi-functional” – that is, more productive, more efficient, and able to contribute more to economic development than larger farms.”
Factory farming has an insatiable appetite not only for crops for animal feed but also for oil, water and chemicals used to grow what’s fed to the animals. Two out of three farm animals worldwide are now factory farmed. Ironically, land grabbing exacerbates the reasons why food-insecure nations are taking this action in the first place. It will not guarantee food supply but instead will perpetuate the problems of factory farming, environmental degradation, hunger and food riots.
As Shepard Daniel concludes,
“Much of the global food system, from seed and fertiliser supply to trade and retail, is in the hands of a few large corporations whose interests are first and foremost economic gain, not feeding the millions of the world’s hungry. The land grab trend is extending the control of the private sector over food production in a way that provides little transparency, few safeguards, and shows little concern for political, (local) economic or humanitarian consequences.”
What is needed – and what Compassion calls for – is an international agricultural policy which recognises factory farming as the wrong model for feeding the world. As we stated in our report, Beyond Factory Farming,
“In the next decades, we need to halve the environmental footprint of food production and free-up grain to feed people. A reduction in animal production, combined with lower-input, extensive farming, is the most effective response that farmers and policy makers in developed countries can make to achieve this goal. A reduction in consumption of animal products is also one of the most rapid and effective responses that an individual can make to the global problems of climate change, over-exploitation of the global environment and to free up natural resources for the use of the world’s poor.”
It’s again time to confine the practice of land grabbing to the past.