How Wealthy Nations Drive Food Insecurity


World leaders can talk all they want about the need for investments in agricultural productivity in Africa, but food insecurity will only worsen unless countries confront this harsh reality. Wealthy countries' land use strategies only increase the vulnerability of the world’s poorest people, and our global food system neglects the human right to food and favors capitalist wealth accumulation. Countries have responded to resource scarcity and climate change through biofuel production, land-grabbing, and the United Nation's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation program (REDD) — all signs of the injustices embedded in the international politics of food. 

U.S. farmers have diverted cropland toward fuel production, driving up global food prices. We have already seen the disastrous impact on poor countries: Demand for biofuels played a role in the 2008 food price spike that spurred riots in over 30 countries. Amidst the effort to wean America off oil, the entrenched farm lobby found in biofuels another way for its farmers to profit by marginalizing developing countries. It is as if generous subsidies to American farmers — which enable them to sell their surplus cheaply on the international market — were not enough.

Biofuels have become intertwined with another dimension of the inequity in the global food system: land-grabbing. Investors from all over the world are buying up agricultural land in Africa. Those from the Middle East and China are doing so as a way to secure food supplies for their own populations, while other investors are seeking to profit from the demand for biofuels. In the first 11 months of 2009, these land deals encompassed at least 110 million acres, 70% of which covered Africa, according to the World Bank.

Developed countries deceptively try to frame the land-grabbing issue as an African governance problem. They say that host country governments should strengthen local people’s legal rights to land. This perspective, however, ignores the role of international financial institutions — puppets of wealthy countries — in condoning land grabbing.

The International Financial Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank, and its partner organization, the Foreign Investment Advisory Service (FIAS), have actively promoted liberalization of land markets. Research Fellow at the Oakland Institute Shepard Daniel critiques these programs, writing, “IFC and FIAS prioritize the improvement of investment climates and promote business-enabling environments and, in doing so, it appears they overlook the more urgent problems of hunger and poverty that persist in their client countries, losing sight of their principle mission, which is to alleviate poverty.”

The World Bank has published Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment in response to land-grabbing. Yet, the World Bank is essentially legitimizing land-grabs by failing to suggest a different model for agriculture. 

For example, while one principle tells investors to consult local communities, the Bank offers no guidelines for what should happen if local people reject the investor’s proposal. UN Special Raporter on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter captured this problem last year, suggesting these programs would be better utilized by giving small farmers more land.

The third factor central to the global politics of land inequality is the way that developed countries have responded to climate change. Rather than reaching a binding agreement to reduce their own countries’ carbon emissions, the world’s powers decided to shift the burden to developing countries through the creation of the REDD program, which offers payments to people in developing nations to preserve forests. REDD will only create problems: People living in forested areas will be forced to intensify use of existing agricultural land, which would precariously make them dependent on chemical inputs in an era of rising fuel prices. And migration of people from forested to arable areas will induce competition over increasingly scarce natural resources.

These three pivotal land issues must be merged with development discourses through an emphasis on the human right to food. Yet this vision hasn't been realized in agricultural development policy largely because donor countries are unwilling to confront the capitalist interests responsible for the unjust global land system.

In the end, ironically, wealthy countries will ultimately bear the costs of perpetuating inequitable global land politics — costs that will come in the form of international political instability. High food prices due to biofuel production already caused riots in over 30 countries in 2008, and contributed to the start of historic uprisings this spring in the Arab world. With high food prices having become the norm, riots could reignite at any moment. Madagascar’s government was overthrown in 2008, partly because of popular opposition to a land deal with a South Korean company. Since then, land grabbing has only accelerated. And the competition for agricultural resources that emerges from the REDD program will almost certainly raise the possibility of conflict.

We are now in an era where the politics of land use will determine international security — and it is time to start integrating that reality into agricultural development.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons