Even to the casual observer, it seems so easy to understand why the global land-grabbing phenomenon, which has seen vast tracts of African farmland bought up by foreign investors, has generated such sharp opposition. The displacement of local people, to make room mostly for export biofuel production, has obvious detrimental consequences for human rights and food security. But rather than condemn these land acquisitions, the World Bank has only lent credibility to them, suggesting that land deals can be “regulated” with measures mitigate adverse impacts.
How is it possible that something so egregious — so clearly bound to increase the vulnerability of the world’s poor — can become legitimized by an institution tasked with alleviating poverty?
Opponents have largely framed the issue as a matter of corporate greed taking priority over local people’s rights. But the real, if less tangible, driver goes far deeper than that. Where land grabs find their justification, at the most fundamental level, is in our society’s acceptance of agriculture’s subordination to industry. This disparity is so deeply embedded in our global economy that it has been taken for granted and thus often ignored as a culprit in today’s systemic food crisis.
The emergence of agriculture as an industry in itself marks the ultimate capture of agriculture by industry. Foreign investment in African farmland to sustain the biofuels industry is part of a frightening trend in which increasing amounts of land are diverted from local food production — including for livestock feed and ingredients for the food industry. That no major development institution is confronting this injustice, and all are instead calling for higher yields to fight hunger, is a testament to the potency of industry’s triumph.
And as rural communities are pushed off their land, all sorts of assumptions are made about how they will achieve food security. The World Bank, in its Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment, writes: “Whenever there are potential adverse effects on any of aspect of food security (availability, access, utilization or stability), policy-makers should make provisions for the local or directly affected populations certain such that … equivalent access to food is assured.”
What this language reflects is how proponents of land deals are seizing on the consumer and urban bias that defines the global food economy. As displaced rural populations are bound to become dependent on food from global markets, they are paradoxically becoming regarded as the urban consumers whose very food they produce. Justifications of land grabbing, then, are equating food with the same values that underlie manufactured industrial products in the world economy: cheap, abundant, and available somewhere in the world. Just as agribusiness control becomes justified for providing cheap food, so too multinational manufacturers are embraced for producing consumers’ leisure items. This mindset turns a blind eye to how corporate consolidation of agriculture has devastated many small and medium-sized farmers, and how global manufacturers marginalize their labor force.
But food can no longer be seen like any product that can appear from a factory somewhere in the world. The era of cheap food is over. The 2008 food crisis, which featured a skyrocketing of food prices, witnessed urban riots in over 30 countries. During the next crisis, will we soon see similar forms of contestation among the rural communities who have lost their land to foreign investors?
The end of cheap food may, in fact, provide an opening to address the rural-urban imbalance in the global food economy. After all, the consumer and urban bias couldn’t prevail unless food were cheaply available. The wake-up call provided by today’s food crisis is an opportunity to restructure the social relations of global agriculture and elevate the value of rural communities to its rightful place. Once this happens, suddenly land grabbing becomes indisputably exposed as an assault on the rights of rural people; there is no possible way to find any hint of legitimacy in the takeover of land belonging to others. This sort of shift has the potential not only to halt land acquisitions in Africa, but also to enhance the rights of agricultural communities in developed countries.
Indeed, one of the best examples of contestation comes from a country where the urban consumer bias has long thrived.
In Ontario, Canada, Highland Companies has purchased farmland with the intention of turning it into mega quarry for extracting limestone to be used in road building and construction — a glaring example of urban needs taking precedence over farmers’ rights. This has triggered mobilization among activists worried that the quarry could threaten the water supplies in a region responsible for half the Greater Toronto area’s potato production. But it’s not just the farmers who are protesting. Paradoxically, it’s also the urban population whose resource demands are driving this land grab in the first place. And so perhaps the best way to contest the urban bias is to build a food movement centered on regional food economies.
“Part of building food security — especially fruits and vegetables, the mainstay of healthy diet — is relying on regional producers,” said Wayne Roberts, the former director of the Toronto Food Policy Council. “This is one of the most productive areas of the world with access to water, which we could destroy with the quarry.”
So as the debate over land grabbing rages on, let’s use this as a vital opportunity to think about how the very underpinnings of world agriculture — favoring not only industry itself but the industrial mindset of consumption — might be the historical roots of the crisis of displacement unfolding in the world’s poorest countries.