10 Sep 2010

Rising Global Interest in Farmland – Time to Act!

Christian Häberli is involved in an eDiscussion, which is based on the World Bank Report "Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits?" The eDiscussion will take place from 13 September to 8 October and is jointly hosted by the Global Donor Platform for Rural Development and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). Swiss Radio DRS 1, 2 and 4 have also taken up the topic.

This report is a valuable no nonsense contribution to a debate that started only when ‘land grabbing’ had become such a massive phenomenon that even policy-makers had to pay attention. This lack of interest is surprising when you consider food as the most basic of all elementary needs. Oil and mining investments never stopped – and they provided their share of human rights and environmental abuse cases. Agriculture and poor farmers, however, were sadly neglected for decades, in part because of the artificially low prices caused by subsidies for rich farmers and, more recently, by alternative uses like (also subsidised) biofuels. The ensuing food crisis of 2008-09 kick-started new projects, but when investors came to poor countries the fragility of their hosts became even more visible than the scars of open-pit mining in a tropical rain forest.
Foreign direct investment in agriculture is a new and decisive factor for future global food security. The report correctly identifies ‘weak land governance’ as a key issue where investors, international financial organisations, FAO, CGIAR, donors and researchers are called upon to better cooperate with local governments, communities and farmers. But this new challenge also calls into question the role played by the multilateral trading system: food, after all, can only be procured domestically, or traded. The WTO only looks at trade distortions caused by subsidies and high tariffs. Unfortunately, from a food security perspective, it has been incapable of addressing the harmful effects on local producers of export restrictions acting as disincentives for big and small farmers alike, and surplus disposal coming under the disguise of food aid.
Too much time has been wasted on debates about small versus big farms, or organic versus biotech food. Better production and trade regulations, and monitored codes of conduct for agricultural FDI, are required urgently. It is high time they got the necessary attention – before even more harm is done on the farms in Africa and elsewhere.