So how much land and water is actually being grabbed? Quite a lot, according to a big new study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences” this week. The authors find that somewhere between 0.7 percent and 1.75 percent of the world’s agricultural land is being transferred to foreign investors from local landholders. That’s an area bigger than France and Germany combined.
Big purchasers of foreign farmland include Britain, the United States, China, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, South Africa, Israel, India and Egypt. They’re mostly seeking out land in Africa and Asia, particularly in countries such as Congo, Sudan, Indonesia, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ethiopia and even Australia.
Here’s a map from the PNAS study showing who’s grabbing what from where. Red triangles indicate investors, green dots indicate land that’s being snatched up. Note that some countries, like Russia and Brazil, are on both ends of the farmland trade:
The study found that foreign investors frequently buy tracts of land that have plenty of freshwater, either from local rainfall or underground aquifers. That’s the key commodity here. “This is often good agricultural land that isn’t yet fully utilized,” says Paolo D’Odorico, one of the study’s co-authors. “It was being used by local farmers without modern technology, without irrigation, without fertilizer.”After the land is bought up, large commercial farms will move in and boost production to grow their own crops. One 2010 study from the World Bank found that about 37 percent of this “grabbed” land is used to grow food crops, 21 percent to grow cash crops and 21 percent to grow biofuels. (For instance, some 27,400 square miles of land land have been snatched up in Indonesia, largely to grow palm oil, which can be turned into biodiesel.)Speculation in food production may make sociopaths rich, but it is a terrible idea. However, if the investment in technology actually went to benefit the locals, that would be a net positive. For some reason, I don't trust Goldman, Chinese companies and emirs to do the right thing.