“Is There Such a Thing as Agro-Imperialism?”

I received a link to this New York Times “Is There Such a Thing as Agro-Imperialism?” article from eastafricaforum www.eastafricaforum.net

“Dr. Robert Zeigler, an eminent American botanist (ed: and DG of IRRI), flew to Saudi Arabia in March for a series of high-level discussions about the future of the kingdom’s food supply. Saudi leaders were frightened: heavily dependent on imports, they had seen the price of rice and wheat, their dietary staples, fluctuate violently on the world market over the previous three years, at one point doubling in just a few months. The Saudis, rich in oil money but poor in arable land, were groping for a strategy to ensure that they could continue to meet the appetites of a growing population, and they wanted Zeigler’s expertise.”

The article describes how:

“In a series of meetings, Saudi government officials, bankers and agribusiness executives told an institute delegation led by Zeigler that they intended to spend billions of dollars to establish plantations to produce rice and other staple crops in African nations like Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Ethiopia. “They laid out this incredible plan,” Zeigler recalled. He was flabbergasted, not only by the scale of the projects but also by the audacity of their setting. Africa, the world’s most famished continent, can’t currently feed itself, let alone foreign markets.”

We have made reference in several posts to this trend.  Foreign investors have been buying land in Africa, building infrastructure and creating jobs.  But what are the long-term implications for Africa and its own food security?  The article raises questions which are central to the ongoing discussion around global food security, and in a September 28th IRRI Press Release, Zeigler references the trend:

“IRRI supports the proposed code of practice for international land acquisition for food production, including rice, recommended by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which calls for
transparency in negotiations;
respect for existing land rights, including customary and common property rights;
sharing of benefits;
environmental sustainability; and
adherence to national trade policies.”
http://beta.irri.org/news/index.php/press-releases/land-grabs-for-rice-production-due-to-supply-threats.html#top

An IFPRI paper Land Grabbing by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and Opportunities at:
http://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/publications/bp013all.pdf contains a wealth of information and is a “must read” for anyone interested in this subject. IFPRI’s position is that:

“It is crucial to ensure that these land deals, and the environment within which they
take place, are designed in ways that will reduce the threats and facilitate the opportunities for all parties involved.”

There are many opinions on the subject but the Guardian is the most interesting one I’ve seen:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jul/03/land-grabbing-food-environment
Investment standards aside, the bitter truth is – to paraphrase John Burgess – that money speaks louder.  Many countries in Africa are desperate for foreign investment and job creation, and may not be in a position to take the long term view as these opportunities present themselves.

Post written by Peter Bloch, consultant to CAS-IP

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