How land is used, what is grown in it, and by whom, will determine much of the next century’s profits, politics, and revolutions. The ‘land-grab’ agenda is a difficult one for decision-makers, especially without a vision of how investors, communities and governments can seek ultimately guarantee human and ecological security. We expect to see more calls for government regulation of land, but also the sort of regulation that can limit market speculation in food commodities.
As if stressing the difficulties that lied ahead, the news this week is that the U.N. intergovernmental body on food security failed to adopt international guidelines on land governance, delaying efforts to regulate so-called land-grabbing as public and private investors, on the other hand, race to acquire agricultural land. A voluntary code of conduct has been in the works since 2008, driven by concerns that third countries are buying large tracts of land in Africa and Asia to secure their own food supplies, often at the expense of local people. Less known is that in many sub-Saharan countries, the majority of land-grabs are driven by wealthy national elites.
Investors are likely to continue to flock to ‘land-based assets’ as an attractive, more secure alternative to the more uncertain stock and bond markets. Global energy demand will continue to drive demand for biofuels, and land availability to grow these crops will compete with those destined for human consumption. With food security and growing populations in the mix, the resulting trade-offs will test the ability of politicians and governments in places like sub-Saharan Africa to make the right choices with a long-term view.
Olivier De Schutter, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to food, said most of the guidelines had been agreed upon, but that rules on large-scale investment in farmland remained a tough point. The U.N. Committee on Food Security would meet again at the start of 2012, when they hope to reach a draft agreement.