Are “land grabs” a necessary evil?

The large land deals between African and Arab countries or Asian countries, mostly China, have drawn quite some attention.

I mentioned them in an earlier post on this blog (The great unseen land grab).

The discussion has taken an increasing political flavour, but very few people seem to look at the causes of the problem.

The reality is simple: the countries looking for land do so because they have a serious problem to feed their people and to guarantee them access to potable drinking water.

The water problem is obvious in Arab countries. In the past, they tried to grow more food on their land by developing irrigation. Unfortunately, they have concluded that this approach depleted their water reserves, while they also realize that they cannot feed their increasing population. For instance, Saudi Arabia has now turned away from its previous food security strategy and chooses to preserve water and look for other sources of food than their own agriculture. China and other Asian countries also realize that they cannot meet the increasing demand for food.

What should these countries do? Home production will not be sufficient. The first other possibility is to import, but volumes in the current world agriculture will also soon meet limitations. Keeping on buying on the world markets will solve some of the shortage problem, but it leaves the importing countries vulnerable to world market price increases. This is a threat for the domestic social stability as many of their inhabitants can hardly afford food at the current prices. These countries simply cannot remain passive. They needed to take action, and they did.

Why is Africa so attractive? Africa is the only continent where agricultural development has lagged behind. Yields are low. Infrastructure is far from optimal. Africa can increase production if African countries can fund their agricultural development. The main problem is one of money and policies. Africa has huge areas of arable land, but that land is not exploited. The FAO estimates at 700 million hectares the amount of land that could be developed for agricultural production. That area is about the size of Australia. It is twice the size of the current world wheat area. This offers huge potential.

What the importing countries bring to Africa are funds ready for investing in infrastructure and equipment. They could wait for African governments to develop agriculture and then buy from them. Considering how slow agricultural development has been in the past, this solution probably would come down to waiting for nothing to happen and cause serious food shortages in Asia and Arab countries, with all the risks of conflicts that this would generate.

The approach of going to Africa and offering to buy and develop the land makes a lot of sense. By being proactive, the importing countries actually speed up the process of getting investment money at work on the land, and the host countries do not have to worry about how to get the money.

Can these land deals work? In theory, they can. The main issue at stake is how both the importing/investing countries and the host countries set up such deals. The population of Africa is very young and it is growing fast. Africa will see its population double within the next 40 years.  Africa is also a poor continent and the combination poverty and high population increase has the potential to create many problems because of a lack of food security. Developing agriculture in Africa is the way to increase food security, but at the same time, a large part of the food produced on the newly developed land will go abroad, to China and Arab countries. This is why it is utmost important that such deals be set up as win-win situations. The foreign countries must help create agricultural and economic development in Africa in order to feed the local population by developing food production and offering employment so that they also can buy food. Failure to do so will very likely result in riots and violence against the new farms and their staff. This would not feed the local population, and could eventually result in not feeding the foreign countries either. Such land deals must be managed very carefully. The people in charge will have more than just agriculture to look after. Social, cultural and environmental aspects will play a very important role in the execution of these projects.

Africa is the continent where such deals have grown to large proportions, but similar deals are also being made in many Asian nations. It is interesting to see that other regions where large amount of investment money would be useful for agricultural development do not get as much attention from the importing countries. Yet, areas like in Kazakhstan, Ukraine or Russia could use some injection of funds, too. Brazil is starting to attract new money. For instance, the China National Agricultural Development Group Corporation has plans to grow corn and soybeans and it is looking for land in Brazil. The corporation has been allowed an annual budget of US$2 billion to realize the objectives and secure grain supplies to China.

More in my upcoming book Future Harvests.

Copyright 2010 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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