New Book Discusses Causes, Effects, and Extent of Land Grabbing

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By Andrew Alesbury

On December 4, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. held a book launch and panel discussion for the recently released book, The Global Farms Race: Land Grabs, Agricultural Investment, and the Scramble for Food Security. The book is among the first to examine the burgeoning and complex trend of land grabbing and its implications for investors, host countries, and the world as a whole.

The Wilson Center recently held a book launch and discussion on the prevalence, causes, and effects of land grabbing. (Photo credit: Wilson Center)

The panel discussion, which was webcast live, was led by four experts in the global food security and agriculture community: Michael Kugelman, the book’s co-author and Senior Program Associate at the Wilson Center; Derek Byerlee, an independent scholar and advisor; Gary Blumenthal, President and CEO of World Perspectives, Inc.; and Janet Larsen, Director of Research at Earth Policy Institute.

The speakers noted that land grabbing, or the acquisition of large plots of land by foreign actors such as national governments or large corporations, has become particularly notable since 2007. A growing number of countries, fearful of unrest caused by volatile food prices or driven by the need for more energy security through biofuels, have begun investing in farmland abroad, cultivating the land and then exporting the products back home.

The countries purchasing the land typically have insufficient farmland at home (or they have exhausted it) but have ample capital to invest abroad. Among the biggest investors are China, India, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, which have been buying up substantial parcels in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. The International Land Coalition estimates that more than 200 million hectares of foreign agricultural land (nearly the area of Western Europe) were approved or under negotiation between 2000 and 2010.

In The Global Farms Race, the authors note that these land transactions occur most frequently in less-developed countries where governments lack transparency or accountability. These countries attract investors with financial incentives such as low taxes or inexpensive labor, but provide little support for local populations that are displaced or otherwise negatively affected by the land sales. As such, land grabs often become a “race to the bottom” among agriculturally fertile countries to attract wealthy investors, said author and panelist Kugelman.

Kugelman adds, however, that the pace of land grabbing has slowed in recent years. And although the driving factors behind land grabs—food and energy insecurity—are likely to persist, he suggests possible actions to avoid the potential downsides of these investments. Effective government oversight and regulation could help sellers avoid compromising their food security too much. Meanwhile, investing in drought-resistant farming techniques and crops could alleviate some of the demand created by nations too arid to farm their own land.

What is your opinion on land grabbing? Is it inherently bad or can the practice be modified to benefit all affected parties? Watch the webcast discussion here and let us know your thoughts in the comments section!

Andrew Alesbury is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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