23 November 2008

Rich countries buy up agricultural land: who benefits?

I'm back from an exhilirating few weeks on the Obama campaign and haven't thought, talked or read about much else for the last month or so. But as the President-elect's team takes shape and the economic news has settled into a consistently - but predictably - gloomy pattern, I'm trying to find out what happened to some of the big issues from earlier in the year.

One problem that hasn't gone away is the global food crisis. The prices of key commodities may have begun falling, but the structural factors that led to their sustained increase over the last few years haven't gone away. A timely article from the Guardian sheds light on the practice of small, rich countries buying land in large, poor ones to safeguard their future supply of food.

The Guardian journalists do not hide their distaste for the deals, in which cash-hungry governments from Laos to Malaysia to Ukraine sell land to investors from Korea, Abu Dhabi, China and Saudi Arabia to grow food on a large scale. For smallholders who are turfed off their land, or don't have access to the advanced technology of the commercial farms, it's certainly a raw deal. But could there be a benefit to these deals that goes beyond food security for a few small countries?

In principle, there could be. Here is where the land is being bought. If the effect of introducing commercial agriculture to Sudan and Madagascar is a dramatic increase in productivity, the global supply of staple crops like rice and maize will increase and their price will fall. (The rice grown in Madagascar may go straight to South Korea, but South Korea will be able to reduce its imports from other countries commensurately). This could be good news for urban Malagasies, though not for the rural (rice-growing) majority.

A second benefit might come from technological spillovers. Small farmers in Africa and South-East Asia aren't an attractive market for new seed varieties or fertilizer, but large commercial farmers could be. I realize these spillovers are difficult to capture in practice, but surely having more commercial agridealers would be of benefit to everyone.

I don't want to suggest that these deals are good for everyone: some poor people will probably lose their land, the productivity gains may not be spectacular and the global price effect will be too small to notice. I just think we should look at each deal on its merits. Like the Chinese infrastructure deals, some are better than others. Like the Chinese infrastructure deals, we need more research into which ones.

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