Sunday, November 22, 2009

is there such a thing as agro-imperialism?

NYTimes | In a series of meetings, Saudi government officials, bankers and agribusiness executives told an institute delegation led by Zeigler that they intended to spend billions of dollars to establish plantations to produce rice and other staple crops in African nations like Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Ethiopia. “They laid out this incredible plan,” Zeigler recalled. He was flabbergasted, not only by the scale of the projects but also by the audacity of their setting. Africa, the world’s most famished continent, can’t currently feed itself, let alone foreign markets.

The American scientist was catching a glimpse of an emerging test of the world’s food resources, one that has begun to take shape over the last year, largely outside the bounds of international scrutiny. A variety of factors — some transitory, like the spike in food prices, and others intractable, like global population growth and water scarcity — have created a market for farmland, as rich but resource-deprived nations in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere seek to outsource their food production to places where fields are cheap and abundant. Because much of the world’s arable land is already in use — almost 90 percent, according to one estimate, if you take out forests and fragile ecosystems — the search has led to the countries least touched by development, in Africa. According to a recent study by the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, one of the earth’s last large reserves of underused land is the billion-acre Guinea Savannah zone, a crescent-shaped swath that runs east across Africa all the way to Ethiopia, and southward to Congo and Angola.

Foreign investors — some of them representing governments, some of them private interests — are promising to construct infrastructure, bring new technologies, create jobs and boost the productivity of underused land so that it not only feeds overseas markets but also feeds more Africans. (More than a third of the continent’s population is malnourished.) They’ve found that impoverished governments are often only too welcoming, offering land at giveaway prices. A few transactions have received significant publicity, like Kenya’s deal to lease nearly 100,000 acres to the Qatari government in return for financing a new port, or South Korea’s agreement to develop almost 400 square miles in Tanzania. But many other land deals, of near-unprecedented size, have been sealed with little fanfare.

Investors who are taking part in the land rush say they are confronting a primal fear, a situation in which food is unavailable at any price. Over the 30 years between the mid-1970s and the middle of this decade, grain supplies soared and prices fell by about half, a steady trend that led many experts to believe that there was no limit to humanity’s capacity to feed itself. But in 2006, the situation reversed, in concert with a wider commodities boom. Food prices increased slightly that year, rose by a quarter in 2007 and skyrocketed in 2008. Surplus-producing countries like Argentina and Vietnam, worried about feeding their own populations, placed restrictions on exports. American consumers, if they noticed the food crisis at all, saw it in modestly inflated supermarket bills, especially for meat and dairy products. But to many countries — not just in the Middle East but also import-dependent nations like South Korea and Japan — the specter of hyperinflation and hoarding presented an existential threat.

“When some governments stop exporting rice or wheat, it becomes a real, serious problem for people that don’t have full self-sufficiency,” said Al Arabi Mohammed Hamdi, an economic adviser to the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment and Development. Sitting in his office in Dubai, overlooking the cargo-laden wooden boats moored along the city’s creek, Hamdi told me his view, that the only way to assure food security is to control the means of production.