Some are calling it a neocolonial land grab. Others liken it to a second scramble for Africa, only this time the land is being secured through monetary, not military, means.
The trend of rich countries buying and leasing large tracts of land to farm in the developing world is causing such consternation in United Nations, diplomatic, and nongovernmental circles that the Group of 8 will be urged as they meet this week to discuss new rules that could somehow regulate the phenomenon.
According to Olivier de Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on food, some 30 million hectares (74 million acres) of developing world land – an area roughly half the size of France – have been targeted in scores of deals over the past three years.
China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia appear to be at the forefront of the movement, targeting land in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Tanzania, but also in Asian countries like Cambodia and the Philippines.
"It's accelerating very rapidly, because all countries seem to be suddenly realizing that international markets will be less and less reliable and stable in the future, so they seek to insure themselves by either buying land abroad or encouraging their investors to invest in land abroad," says Mr. de Schutter.
Win-win? Maybe not.
Theoretically, the arrangements could provide a win-win situation.
The "landlord" could, after all, bring capital and know-how to the developing country. Jobs could be created in habitually neglected parts of the world. Farmers could get access to modern technology, improving yields.
Duncan Green of Oxfam says most deals are opaque and negotiated between unequal partners.
"Governments have a nasty habit of saying no one lives on the land, when in fact they do," he says. The result: evictions.
De Schutter says most deals have been done in private with no transparency at all. "The few deals we have been able to see are worrying – they are three or four pages long, with very few provisions describing the obligations of foreign investors," he says. "Investment in infrastructure, sustainable management of natural resources, all these issues are left to the goodwill of the investor. That is extremely worrying."
Poor farmers could face eviction
The agriculture free-for-all that is developing poses grave threats to perennially precarious parts of the world: Local farmers face eviction if their governments sell or lease land for quick money with no regard to their right of tenure. Depriving locals of access to productive fields could make hungry people even hungrier. And competition will intensify for that scarcest of all resources – water.
De Schutter has proposed a set of principles and measures which, if adhered to, could make "land grabbing" or "farming abroad," as it is sometimes known, more acceptable.
They include respecting the rights of local farmers to food and sustainable development. Deals should be negotiated at a local level, not just the national level. Investment contracts should prioritize development needs of local people. Some of the crops produced should be sold locally.
Japan is set to take these principles to the G-8 this week, where food security is set to be a prominent issue on the agenda.
But some fear that, even with such safeguards, the genie is out of the bottle.
Lester Brown, the president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, says even if the investor comes in wielding impressive, shiny new technology, it will be of little benefit to the small farm holder.
"Much of this would be large-scale, commercial-farming technology that has little relevance to the small-scale family plots that exist in most of the countries where the land is being acquired," he says.
"I don't see this model leading to that much in the way of technology transfer," he adds. "Every time a tract of land is acquired in a country by a foreign interest, it means that the amount of land to feed the people in that country is reduced."
Please follow us on Twitter.