Proponents of the local food movement like to talk about keeping "food miles" to a minimum. Buying a New Zealand apple in New England is a big no-no. Imagine if instead of stores buying fruit from the South Pacific, the government was buying land in South America to produce "our own" food.
Yet that is what's happening all over the world, as wealthy countries buy or lease large tracts of land in poorer countries for agricultural production and export. At the same time, financial institutions and agribusiness are chasing land as an investment in the expanding biofuels market. Poor governments are often too eager to comply, offering up what they deem "idle" or "unused" land, but which is frequently inhabited and farmed by indigenous populations.
While no one knows the exact number of these controversial deals (called land grabs by critics), hundreds have been reported in the media. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that up to 49 million acres of farmland were the subject of such negotiations between 2006 and 2009 alone.
In conferences and numerous reports, intergovernmental organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have consistently promoted the idea that these deals can be "win-win," where poor countries receive some combination of money, infrastructure, and resources in exchange for their land.
Land rights advocates, farmers' and peasants' groups, and a slew of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have held firmly against this trend. They argue that these land deals spur an assortment of negative consequences, including ecosystem destruction, worker exploitation, loss of livelihoods, food insecurity, and market distortion toward agribusiness and global trade.
A recently leaked World Bank report cited in the Financial Times suggests they may be right: "Investors in farmland are targeting countries with weak laws, buying arable land on the cheap and failing to deliver on promises of jobs and investments," the Times summarized.
True agrarian reform
True agrarian reform is something else entirely, according to 120 organizational signatories of an April statement that called for an immediate end to land grabs. Such change, they argued, includes investment in research and training programs for smallholder farmers overhauling trade policies, supporting regional markets, and promoting "community-oriented food and farming systems hinged on local people's control over land, water and biodiversity."
In meetings with farmers in more than 21 countries in Africa, we at the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project have found smallholder agricultural innovations to be some of the most successful approaches.
In southern Ghana, for example, the Abooman Women's Group raises dairy cows to make yogurt and pasteurized milk to sell to the community. These products help the women earn higher incomes, especially in the off-season. And studies show that supporting women's access to training, credit, and inputs improves not only food security, but health indicators as well.
In Ethiopia, a country rich in fertile land that is the focus of many proposed investment deals, international NGO Prolinnova funds innovative projects like Kes Malede Abreha's water pumps. Using the pumps and hoses to irrigate his fruit trees and farm crops, Mr. Abreha was able to increase his family's income and diversify their crops. Now he trains other farmers.
Such smallholder agricultural innovations can increase yields, improve livelihoods, and protect natural resources all at the same time. There is too much at stake when governments give up land, water, and livestock to large-scale foreign investment. NGOs and funders have an important role to play: to listen and respond to the needs and accomplishments on the ground, and keep local food systems truly local.