As global food prices soar and population growth and urbanization shrink the supply of arable land, many countries have been forced to adopt new forms of production to secure their food supply. But instead of embracing sustainable land-use practices and improving rural development, some nations have shifted food production overseas, igniting a massive land grab in the developing world.
Meanwhile, the Telegraph reported that South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics has been working to secure a 99-year lease for 3.2 million hectares of farmland in Madagascar that it will use to “grow 5 million metric tons of maize a year and 500,000 tons of palm oil” to use as biofuel in South Korea. The company says it expects to pay almost nothing besides infrastructure costs and employment training in return for its use of the land. Despite Madagascar’s rapid population growth and pervasive food insecurity, the deal, if signed, will allow the South Korean company to lease approximately half of the current arable farmland on the island state.
In an effort to combat a freshwater shortage, China has secured an agreement with Laos for a 50-year lease of 1,600 hectares of land in return for funding a new sports complex in Vientiane for the 2009 Southeast Asian Games. And with only 8 percent of the world’s arable land and more than one-fifth of the world’s population to feed, China continues to encourage its businesses to go outside China to produce food, looking to developing countries in Africa and Latin America.
Jacques Diouf, director-general of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, recently warned that these deals are a “political hot potato” that could prove devastating to the developing world’s own food supply, as several of these states already face severe food insecurity. Diouf has expressed concern that these deals could breed a “neo-colonial” agricultural system that would have the world’s poorest and most malnourished feeding the rich at their own expense.
And with land rights a contentious issue throughout the developing world—including in Haiti, Kenya, and Sudan, for instance—these agreements could spark civil conflict if governments and foreign investors fail to strike equitable deals that also benefit local populations. “Land is an extremely sensitive thing,” warns Steve Wiggins, a rural development expert at the Overseas Development Institute. “This could go horribly wrong if you don’t learn the lessons of history” and attempt to minimize inequality.
As food prices continue to climb, more and more countries are likely to scramble to gain access to the developing world’s arable land. Without land-use agreements that ensure a host country’s domestic food supply is secure before its foreign investor’s, long-term sustainable development could be set back decades, something impoverished developing countries simply cannot afford.
Photo: A man threshing in Ethiopia. Long plagued by acute food insecurity, Ethiopia’s arable land is sought by more-developed countries to ensure the stability of their own food stocks. Courtesy of Flickr user Eileen Delhi.