Up for Grabs: Land and Food in a Hungry World

Apr 9th, 2014 | By | Category: Food and Hunger

By Suzanne York, www.howmany.org

The president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, warned that battles over water and food will erupt within the next five to ten years as a result of climate change.  As he was talking of the risks of climate change, the UN announced that food prices had risen to their highest in almost a year.

[photo credit: Oakland Institute]

At about the same time as these announcements were happening, the Oakland Institute released a report on the World Bank and land grabs, stating that the World Bank was destroying traditional farming to support corporate land grabs (where corporations, individuals and governments buy or lease prime agricultural lands, often displacing poor and marginalized communities who have lived there for generations).

The Uptick on News on Food Security

It’s easy for some to dismiss talk of food shortages and insecurity as just more “chicken little warnings” that have been wrong in the past.  But a look at recent news on food security should give people cause for concern.

Between 2011 and 2012, for instance, global production of grain fell 3 percent, largely as a result of droughts that hit corn production in the United States and wheat production in Australia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

Last week, an article from the Los Angeles Times reported that the challenge of feeding 1.3 billion people in a nation grappling with tainted food and polluted land is prompting Chinese companies to invest in farmland overseas.  China has 20% of the world’s population and just 9% of its arable land, and it is looking to acquire fertile farmland in countries around the world (China is not alone; India, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are just some others doing the same).

Developing country governments are eager for foreign investments, and some have sold land for as little as fifty cents per hectare.

[image credit: www.foodfirst.org]

Pro-corporate Agenda

“The World Bank is facilitating land grabs and sowing poverty by putting the interests of foreign investors before those of locals,” said Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute.

For example, due to policies driven by the World Bank, Sierra Leone has taken 20 percent of its arable land from rural populations and leased it to foreign sugar cane and palm oil producers. And in Liberia, British, Malaysian, and Indonesian palm-oil interests have secured long-term leases for over 1.5 million acres of land formerly held by local communities.

The Oakland Institute believes the World Bank’s strategy “still upholds a fundamentally pro-corporate agenda and a neoliberal vision of the economy.”  Indeed, land grabs are just a continuation of the global trade agenda that benefits the rich over poor and looks like a modern form of colonialism.

The Climate Question

In the face of growing inequality and inequity around the world, and increasing severity of the impacts of climate change, the issue of land grabs is unsettling.  The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that global crop yields are beginning to decline (especially for wheat), raising doubts as to whether production could keep up with population growth.

“Climate change is acting as a brake. We need yields to grow to meet growing demand, but already climate change is slowing those yields,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton professor and an author of the report.

[image credit: ciat.cgiar.org/]

Promote Greater Rights

With the global population predicted to be over 9 billion people by 2050, and with that rise, an increase in land paved over for growing cities, the pressure to feed people will become a critical issue. There will be more and more pressure from developed countries to try and obtain food security for their own citizens.

Land rights and human rights must be strengthened and prioritized.  And poor countries and small holder farmers need to be supported by multilateral organizations like the World Bank, not put at risk by policies that only serve rich governments, corporations and elite.

Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies.

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