What is Land: Part I

The world passed the earth’s ecological threshold last week.  According to the Global Footprint Network, August 22nd marked the day that humanity “exhausted nature’s budget for the year.”  That means that for the rest of the year, rather than sustainably using the services provided by the planet (absorb carbon, replenish aquifers and re-grow forests) humanity is effectively mining them — drawing down the capacity of the planet faster than it can be replenished.  The Global Footprint Network calls out the developed world in particular for living far beyond its means.  Therefore it seems like an appropriate time to revisit a phenomenon that has allowed the developed world to expand its footprint so much: the gradual yet accelerating export of extractive agriculture to the Third World — Africa in particular. Or, framed in a more controversial way, it is time to revisit ‘land grabs.’

While the American Midwest is still the breadbasket of the world, the levels of foreign investment in Africa for agricultural development suggests that the balance of power in agricultural production might slowly be shifting. Oxfam International indicates that more than 200 million hectares of land — an area the size of Western Europe — has been purchased or leased by foreign investors in developing countries around the world since 2001. Notably, the majority of this investment has occurred in the last two years, and it corresponds with the period of the highest food prices in the last fifteen years. While this number includes all developed countries, Nature suggests that the problem is particularly acute in Africa. An interactive map showing the location and extent of land grabs around the world verifies that Africa is a major target for acquisitions.

But is foreign acquisition of land necessarily a bad thing? Nature makes a compelling case that it does indeed threaten sustainable development in Africa, but in theory, foreign investment can also offer opportunities to improve agricultural productivity and rural livelihoods in one of the least productive regions of the world. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that these land acquisitions, far from improving livelihoods, are actually making the rural poor worse off.

First, a significant portion of these acquisitions — up to 70% — are made as a speculative bet and are allowed to remain undeveloped. But while allowing unoccupied land to remain undeveloped may have its advantages from an environmental perspective, it is not clear that there is a benefit to purchasing already occupied land and forcing farmers to cease production, as is this case in nearly 50% of acquisitions in one study.

Second, and more important, the pattern of production on land that is used for agriculture has more in common with the extractive mining industries than with the traditional view of agriculture as food production. It appears that even on land that is used for agricultural purposes, the fruit of that agriculture does not remain in the countries in which it is produced. Rather, after a food crop has been grown on the land, it is exported to feed the population of the country that acquired the land. In 30% of cases however, the land is acquired not to produce food but to produce biofuels. The strong and suggestive relationship between global energy prices and the pace of land acquisition reinforces the idea that demand for biofuels, and not increased food production, is driving foreign investment.

The extractive nature of the agriculture occurring on these acquisitions might be the most concerning aspect of this practice. It suggests that the conversion of agriculture to an extractive industry has become truly globalized and, as a result, is detached from its original purpose: to provide food for human consumption. While industrial agriculture offers many — necessary, if a global population of 9 billion is to be fed — advantages over traditional agriculture (increased production per acre, greater efficiencies in terms of capital inputs, etc.), industrial agriculture can be very similar in practice to fossil fuel extraction. In the latter case, oil, gas or coal is mined. In the case of industrial agriculture, topsoil and water are mined. The evidence is mounting that both topsoil and water in the world’s most productive agriculture regions are being overtaxed. Therefore an obvious, if short-term, solution to the problem is to move on to regions of the world that have yet to be as intensively farmed, namely Africa.

The land acquisitions in Africa are not necessarily a type of new imperialism, as some have claimed, but the inevitable result of turning agriculture from a productive to an extractive industry. Like all extractive industries, once reserves are exhausted in one area, capital flows to areas with new, untapped reserves. And like extractive industries, industrial agriculture brings mixed blessings. It offers the chance for development, but it also threatens substantial environmental destruction. A key element in ensuring that the benefits are realized and the costs are avoided is transparency in transactions, something that appears to be sorely lacking in the case of African land acquisitions.

Providing greater transparency around the process by which land is acquired will help solve some of the social problems the new land rush is currently generating. However, it leaves unanswered a critical question: can agriculture continue to emulate extractive industries? Or is it necessary to reconceptualize land and its role in both the agricultural and larger productive process in a way that can feed a global population while also being sustainable?