Available land? The Economist special report on global food security

by Rhodri C. Williams

Just a quick note to draw readers’ attention to a special report on what it will take to feed a global population of 9 billion by 2050 in this week’s Economist. Like much of the material in the Economist, the special reports are only available for a limited time, but can be downloaded in .pdf format while they last. Intriguingly, next week’s edition is slated to include a special report on ‘property’.

Turning to the current report on food security, land is discussed as a constraint on the increases in yield needed to keep up with global population growth, but is accorded less significance than other variables, notably water and fertilizer. One of the most interesting conclusions of the report is that genetic modification of both livestock and plants may facilitate a second green revolution that might for the first time allow the stabilizing population of the world to eat properly, climate change notwithstanding. One of the most worrisome conclusions is that achieving these types of technological leaps may be the only way to avoid catastrophe.

On the issue of land, the special report asserts that intensive agriculture along Brazilian lines, together with extensive use of fertilizer and genetically modified crops, will be necessary evils. The article notes that clearing of new land would be counterproductive, in part due to the cost of losing further forests, and in part because little readily arable land remains uncleared. However, the report cites World Bank findings indicating that cultivated land could be increased by one-third worldwide by bringing intensive methods to areas with fewer than 25 people per hectare currently living on them.

The World Bank is also cited as noting that up to an eighth of such ‘available’ land has already been put to cultivation by foreign investors in only three years since the ‘global land rush’ phenomenon began in earnest. While this is taken as evidence that the remaining seven eights can quickly be put to the service of a hungry world, it also raises some questions that are not fully addressed in the report. One of the foremost relates to the fate of the twenty five or fewer people currently occupying each of the half-billion hectares in question.

From a development perspective, it is now widely accepted that persons ‘affected’ by projects, presumably including agricultural intensification, should benefit along with broader society (or at least not suffer deterioration in their living standard as a result). While experiences vary across ‘land rush’ scenarios, there are concerns that traditional occupiers of affected land are often simply ignored, in keeping with a tendency in many post-colonial countries to assume that land not held in formal title is at the free disposal of the state. There is, in all of this, an eerie echo of the ‘terra nullius’ doctrine applied by colonial powers to treat land not cultivated in readily familiar European patterns as free for the taking.

From a rights perspective, this is a problematic state of affairs. Although I have argued that rights-based and development resettlement standards have converged significantly, recent experiences in developing countries such as Cambodia have raised questions about the extent to which such standards are rigorously applied. As reflected in last year’s TN posting by Chris Huggins, the role of rights discourse in the response to the global land rush remains contested. While human rights rulings in favor of indigenous land rights such as that in the Endorois case last year represent legal benchmarks, their ability to stem the current tide of international land transactions is questionable.

It is nevertheless clear that understanding the role of informal rights to land resources has been accepted as an important element of development and rule of law work. To quote the World Banks ‘Justice for the Poor‘ program:

…given that reform processes are often about ‘changing the rules’ or the distribution of resources, they are also inherently conflict ridden. Experience suggests that where development initiatives have built-in mechanisms for managing disputes, they can improve the effectiveness of projects and reduce the likelihood of conflict arising.  Such mechanisms address the legal or justice-related elements of the development process by providing outlets for and tools to communities to resolve disputes which impact on access to resources and, by extension, standard of living.

All of which makes me all the more curious about what exactly the Economist is going to have to say about ‘property’ next week. I hope other TN readers, and particularly those sharing their their hectare of the world’s real estate with 24 or fewer neighbors will be reading along with me.

4 responses to “Available land? The Economist special report on global food security

  1. Anders Linde

    I am a long-term subscriber to the Economist, which I for the most part find well-researched and most-often very eloquently written. However, in their coverage of the looming food crisis of the world, they have not done their home-work properly. Sometimes, I get hunch that they are not as independent or objective in their analysis and conclusions as you may be inclined to think. Reading through their various pieces on the subject of how to assess the situation concerning food for the masses and subsequently how you might think what could be the proper responses to the potential menacing task of feeding a world of up to 9 billion souls in a few decades, they are simply not up to the task. When I read through the various pieces of what to do about the threatening food crisis and I savior the suggested notion that we need to repeat the so called green revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s, this time with more of the same medicine, in order to save the spaceship called earth. More genetics, more fossil fueled fertilizers, more broiler and closed battery systems with animals in cages and given strict diets and anti-biotic treatments, more herbicides, more insect ices…..I get a uneasy feeling that the research team for this special report have all fallen for the seductive mantra of an easy way out of the problem with a quick fix of genetic engineering plus anti-biotics and chemicals and that they have all been subdued by the drumbeats of the likes of Monsanto and the other proponents of big Parma genetic food strategies. Well, they are dead wrong! The required steps are much more complex and intricately interwoven with the whole natural environment and the economical framework of the local communities. The actions that will be required will vary from place to place, as agriculture depends heavily on the local environments, people, and other factors, such as social and economic structures as well as trade regulations. If we are going to spend billions of dollars reinventing agriculture, then we must also invest in rural infrastructures and institutions beyond agriculture. We must also eliminate the perverse subsidies to western food producers in favor of rewards for sound agricultural practices and we must change our consumption patterns. Genetic technology and input-intensive systems will focus on specific interventions to specific problems, and with costly programs to contain collateral damage of these very short sighted solutions. This corporate system of big Pharma treats the Earth’s life-sustaining resources (arable land, groundwater, wetlands, foliage, forests, fisheries, ocean beds, bays, rivers, air quality) as disposable ingredients presumed to be of limitless supply, to be consumed or toxified at will. The function of the transnational big Pharma corporation is not to promote a healthy ecology but to extract as much marketable value out of the natural world as possible even if it means treating the environment like a septic tank. An ever-expanding big Pharma corporate agenda and a fragile finite ecology are on a calamitous collision course. We should instead include provisions to give the small-scale farmers access to capital and resources, promote public participation in decision-making processes, and not least secure protection for indigenous peoples. Developing countries need the kind of investments that would help them move away from their dependence on export-led growth and international markets for overall food supply and instead toward the priorities of small-scale producers, and a less intensive approach to agriculture. The full realization of the right for nourishing food for all people of the earth, which includes a very essential factor of sustainability, cannot be left simply to the mechanisms of the market, and to some genetic short-term food boosting cowboys in the big Pharma establishment. Lastly, the current land grab bonanzas around the world by affluent countries and greedy investors in tandem with corrupt local elite, keen to develop a potentially lucrative export crop, is a crime in the making. What is more, there are concerns that big Pharma companies, keen to find new outlets for their products, will see agro fuels as a way into these markets and their research is on-going into genetically modified varieties which might be suitable for agro fuels. While local politicians may promise that agro fuels will bring locally sourced energy supplies to their countries, the reality is that most of the foreign companies are developing agro fuels to sell on the international market. The EU’s mandatory target for increasing agro fuels is a clear driver to the land grabbing in other parts of the world. Poor nations should instead give the real political priorities to their own farming technology development, which are investments and priorities given to develop true food sovereignty and provide the right of people to adequate, healthy, locally produced and controlled food. Full environmental and social impact assessments of land use changes before any land sale or lease takes place must be carried out with the participation of local communities. These need to take into account the impacts on biodiversity, natural resources, genetic erosion, food sovereignty, gender, access to productive resources of the local communities and impacts of new technologies and investments in infrastructure. Any land deals should include clear, legally-binding and enforceable obligations on the investor. Investors should pay into an obligatory liability fund to cover for cases of non-compliance. Independent and participatory impact assessments should be made at pre-defined intervals. Agricultural waged workers should be provided with adequate protection and their fundamental human and labor rights should be stipulated in legislation and enforced in practice, consistent with the applicable ILO conventions.

  2. Anders, you write like a blogger in search of a blog! Give it some thought…

  3. Anders Linde

    Hey Rhodri,
    I have considered it for a while, and maybe it’s time to start up something on the net. Something along the lines of the meek will inherit the Earth…….
    To be honest, it is not an exaggeration to say that the battle to achieve the global society’s stated objectives on hunger and poverty reduction will be won or lost in the rural areas of the developing countries. Globally, extreme poverty continues to be a rural phenomenon despite rapid and increasing
    urbanization. Most of world’s extremely poor people, live in rural areas
    and for the most part they depend on agriculture, forestry, fisheries and related activities for survival. The promotion of the rural economy in a sustainable way has the potential of increasing employment opportunities in rural areas, reducing regional income disparities, stemming pre-mature rural-urban migration, and ultimately reducing poverty at its very
    source. Whats more, development of rural areas may contribute to the preservation of the rural landscape, the protection of indigenous cultures and traditions while rural societies could serve as a social buffer for the urban poor in periods of economic crisis or social urban unrest. Discouraging, public policies at national level and resource mobilization at both national and international levels have not recognized the multiple potential of the rural economy. All focus is on industrial, urban and service sectors at the expense of agricultural and other rural sector development. The bulk of agricultural production and consumption takes place outside or on the periphery of national markets, rather than international markets, which concentrate on a few commodities, mostly for animal feed and industrial use. The commercially powerful interests in the western highly industrialized farming industry are continuing to advocate further liberalization of agricultural trade which is unlikely to address the major underlying problems caused by the global commoditization of agricultural products, externalizing ecological and social costs and maintaining wasteful and destructive, highly inequitable terms of trade. The economic invisibility of the small-farm sector is of grave concern for the future of the world. My sympathy and feelings are all for the brave men and women of the La Via Campesina international movement which brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world. Its mission is to defend small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity and it strongly opposes corporate driven agriculture and transnational companies that are destroying people and nature. I have personally played with the thought of leaving the big city, move to the country and start up some kind of small scale agricultural venture here in Sweden, but I have not yet mobilized enough energy to set anything up as of yet. In the meantime I will pursue my current academic studies into the human rights body of knowledge and continue to monitor and support my local heroes out there in the green acres around the globe.

  4. Pingback: Week in links – week 10/2011 | TerraNullius

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