Ever increasing populations and depletion of soil and agricultural resources are placing a huge strain upon global food supplies.  Many countries already import a high proportion of their food supplies, however in times of uncertain trade conditions importing countries have adopted an alternative strategy to secure their food stocks – leasing or buying agricultural land abroad.

Despite the recent surge of attention paid to the phenomenon of “land-grab”, the process is nothing new.  The Roman Empire was built upon control of land far beyond Italy.  Africa is no stranger to having its land exploited by wealthier countries after several hundred years of colonial rule; indeed today’s land-grab is often deemed a “neo-colonial” practice and has been referred to as “The New Scramble for Africa”. 

“Ethiopia is one of the hungriest countries in the world with 2.8 million people needing food aid, but paradoxically the government is offering at least 3m hectares of its most fertile land to rich countries and some of the world’s most wealthy individuals to export food for their own populations.” (John Vidal in The Observer, Sunday 7th March 2010) 

Estimates made by The Observer newspaper claim that up to 50 million hectares of agricultural land (roughly double the size of the UK) have been bought overseas by wealthier countries keen to secure their food supplies.  Alternative estimates made by the International Land Coalition (in a recent article in The Economist) are even higher, claiming that the ownership of almost 80 million hectares of land has been negotiated with international investors.  The focus of this agricultural buy-up has been the continent of Africa, which has supplied over half of all foreign-owned land.  Saudi Arabia has been a significant buyer of land, as it intends to decrease its national production of cereals to conserve its increasingly pressurised water supply.  China too, with its ever-growing population, has recently purchased millions of hectares in Africa. 

But why are nations’ food supplies so precarious in the first place?  The increasing price of oil has forced up the costs of food production, and a need for more agricultural land has also been influenced by EU targets of obtaining 10% of transport fuel from plant-based biofuels by 2015.  Environmental degradation has led to the erosion of soils and the pollution of formerly productive agricultural land in many countries.  Ever-increasing populations also mean that many nations now have a significant number of additional mouths to feed.

Whilst this agri-investment practice may be a sustainable way to shore up food supplies for the importing nations, those nations who are selling the land are placed at increasing risk.  If one country controls another’s agricultural land, siphoning off food supplies, what happens when the second country finds it too is struggling to feed its population?  As it is often the poorest countries which resort to selling their agricultural land and energy resources they do not have the finances to follow suit and buy up land elsewhere.  Their self-sufficiency falls and they become increasingly dependent upon expensive imports.  This can create a downward spiral of dependency and poverty.

These current issues need further consideration at both policy and practical levels.  Foresight examines such issues of self-sufficiency and agri-investment in their Drivers of Change: Food cards.  Explore them further to find out more.

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