Global Food Networks: Countries Buying Countries

[Greenhouses being erected in Jittu, Ethiopia]

[Greenhouses being erected in Jittu, Ethiopia]

Two weeks ago, in an article entitled 'Is There Such a Thing as Agro-Imperialism', the New York Times reported that financially wealthy but resource-poor nations in the Middle East and Asia are attempting to ensure food security by buying up large tracks of arable land in Africa, "seeking to outsource their food production to places where fields are cheap and abundant."

The rising food prices last year left many wealthy nations feeling vulnerably aware of their food insecurity. Some fluctuations, such as the spike in food prices, may be transitory, but others, such as global population growth and water scarcity, show not signs of abaiting, and have created a global market for farmland. The article points out that "because much of the world’s arable land is already in use — almost 90 percent by some accounts – if one excludes forests and fragile ecosystems — the search has led to the countries least touched by development, in Africa, which contains one of the earth’s last large reserves of underused land." Research by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the International Institute for Environment and Development and advocacy groups such as Grain, suggests that huge tracts of Africa’s agricultural lands are being sold, off the radar.

[Satellite measurements of vegetation. Map by Robert Simmon, based on GIMMS vegetation data and World Wildlife Fund ecoregions data.]

[Satellite measurements of vegetation. Map by Robert Simmon, based on GIMMS vegetation data and World Wildlife Fund ecoregions data.]

There is, of course, an irony that a continent which is persistently beset by large-scale famine is seeing its land sold off, in order to sustain wealthy neighboring nations. Foreign investors — some governments, some private interests — are promising to construct infrastructure, bring new technologies, create jobs and boost the productivity of underused land so that it not only feeds overseas markets but also more Africans. It remains to be seen, however, whether local farmers and African citizens will reap any of the benefit of this agro-imperialism.

Other nations, including China, India, South Korea and the UAE are also joining the global land-buy.

[Land buyers and sellers, via mongabay.com]

[Land buyers and sellers, via mongabay.com]

Great interactive map of global land transactions found here.

The first green revolution, which began in 1945, enabled developing nations to achieve food independence. Mexico was the first ‘test site’ of this green revolution, through programs largely funded by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, and India was the second poster child of the green revolution. There have been numerous attempts to introduce the versions of the Mexican and Indian project into Africa, but these programs have generally been less successful, due in small part to environmental factors, and in large part to political and economic instability.

This second version of an African green revolution seems far more ominous, leaving poorer nations to sell off the rights to their own survival. Pruned posted a while back describing how European nations were considering spending upward of “£5bn on a string of giant solar power stations along the Mediterranean desert shores of northern Africa and the Middle East, with the hopes that Africa could provide part of their energy needs, basically turning the continent into one giant solar power plant.” In an optimistic scenario, Africa nations will see lush fields of food supported by a robust infrastructure of water and electricity delivery – an African ‘Broadacre City’. However, if the resource imperialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries is anything to judge by, the outlook for Africa isn't rosy, both in terms of environmental impact and the possibility of wealth trickling down to local farmers. Nations as global supermarket?

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