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The ‘Global’ Land Rush

In this column, Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank on today’s most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues, argues that the time has come for a more holistic discussion of land deals that places transfer of land in both the developed and developing worlds along the same continuous spectrum.

OAKLAND, United States, Aug 4 2014 (IPS) - The first years of the twenty-first century will be remembered for a global land rush of nearly unprecedented scale.

An estimated 500 million acres, an area eight times the size of Britain, was reported bought or leased across the developing world between 2000 and 2011, often at the expense of local food security and land rights.

When the price of food spiked in 2008, pushing the number of hungry people in the world to over one billion, it spiked the interest of investors as well, and within a year foreign land deals in the developing world rose by a staggering 200 percent.

Anuradha Mittal

Anuradha Mittal

Today, enthusiasm for agriculture borders on speculative mania. Driven by everything from rising food prices to growing demand for biofuel, the financial sector is taking an interest in farmland as never before.

The Oakland Institute has reported since 2011 how a new generation of institutional investors – including hedge funds, private equity, pension funds, and university endowments – is eager to capitalise on global farmland as a new and highly desirable asset class.

But the thing most consistently missed about this global land rush is that it is precisely that – global. Although media coverage tends to focus on land grabs in low-income countries, the opposite side of the same coin is a new rush for U.S. farmland, manifesting itself in rising interest from investors and surging land prices, as giants like the pension fund TIAA-CREF commit billions to buy agricultural land.

One industry leader estimates that 10 billion dollars in institutional capital is looking for access to U.S. farmland, but that figure could easily rise as investors seek to ride out uncertain financial times by placing their money in the perceived safety of agriculture.

In the next 20 years, as the U.S. experiences an unprecedented crisis of retiring farmers, there will be ample opportunity for these actors to expand their holdings as an estimated 400 million acres changes generational hands. And yet, the domestic face of this still unfolding land rush remains largely unseen.

For all their size and ambition, virtually nothing is known about these new investors and their business practices. Who do they buy land from? What do they grow? How do they manage their properties? In an industry not known for its transparency, none of these questions have a satisfactory answer.

For more than six years the Oakland Institute has been at the forefront of exposing the murky nature of land deals in the developing world. The challenge today is to begin a more holistic discussion that places transfer of land in both the developed and developing worlds along the same continuous spectrum.

Driven by the same structural factors and perpetrated by many of the same investors, the corporate consolidation of agriculture is being felt just as strongly in Iowa and California as it is in the Philippines and Mozambique.

Down on the Farm, a new report from the Oakland Institute, aims to increase awareness of the overlapping global and national factors enabling the new American land rush, while at the same time introduces the motives and practices of some of the most powerful players involved in it: UBS Agrivest, a subsidiary of the biggest bank in Switzerland; the Hancock Agricultural Investment Group (HAIG), a subsidiary of the biggest insurance company in Canada; and the Teacher Annuity Insurance Association College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), one of the largest pension funds in the world.

Only by studying the motives and practices of these actors today does it become possible to begin building policies and institutions that help ensure farmers, and not absentee investors, are the future of our food system.

Nothing is more crucial than beginning this discussion today. The issue may seem small for a variety of reasons – because institutional investors only own an apparently tiny one percent of all U.S. farmland, or because farmers are still the biggest buyers of farmland across the country.

But to take either of these views is to become dangerously blind to the long-term trends threatening our agricultural heritage.

Consider the fact that investors believe that there is roughly 1.8 trillion dollars’ worth of farmland across the United States. Of this, between 300 and 500 billion dollars is considered to be of “institutional quality,” a combination of factors relating to size, water access, soil quality, and location that determine the investment appeal of a property.

This makes domestic farmland a huge and largely untapped asset class. Some of the biggest actors in the financial sector have already sought to exploit this opportunity by making equity investments in farmland. Frequently, these buyers enter the market with so much capital that their funds are practically limitless compared with the resources of most farmers.

Although they have made an impressive foothold, this is the beginning, not the end, of a land rush that could literally change who owns the country and our food and agricultural systems. Not only is there space in the market for institutional investors to expand, but there are also major financial incentives for them to do so.

If action is not taken, then a perfect storm of global and national trends could converge to permanently shift farm ownership from family businesses to institutional investors and other consolidated corporate operations. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

 
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