Food prices continue to dominate the headlines around the world. Although they fell in the final months of 2008, they remain above the long-term trend and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future, according to experts such as the British charity, Oxfam. In March, the UN convened yet another global meeting, hosted by the Spanish government, “to raise the political profile of hunger and food security, develop new partnerships and increase resources”.
The Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation, Jacques Diouf, who is also vice-chairman of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, warned: “With an expected increase of 40 million in 2008, the world today has reached 963 million people who are malnourished. This signifies that right now there are almost one billion who are hungry, out of 6.5 billion who make up the world population.”
This is a serious matter indeed. Prices may be falling but the issue of undernourishment won’t go away easily. As Diouf pointed out, almost all of the undernourished population in the world resides in developing countries where the number of malnourished people represents 98 per cent of the world total. The food crisis, which began in 2007, saw an additional 24 million people in sub-Saharan African joining the ranks of the malnourished.
In the midst of all this, a new and dangerous trend looms large. Rich countries, in a bid to secure food for their populations, have begun to enter into deals to lease land abroad to grow food – for their population and not that of the host country. The move is coming from Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that have made offers to countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Sudan and Ukraine. Private investors and food companies are also planning to enter into such land deals.
All of a sudden there is talk of food colonialism. “The risk is of creating a neo-colonial pact for the provision of non-value added raw materials in the producing countries and unacceptable work conditions for agricultural workers,” Diouf warned last year. Indeed, such deals are a recipe for social strife in these countries.
How can countries – and let’s confine this to Africa – that are struggling to feed their own populations lease fertile land to other countries to feed their own populations? It does not make sense at all. And you would have thought that those African leaders eager to lease land to foreigners would know better. Take Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, for example. Reports have quoted him as saying that he is “very eager” to lease hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land to produce food for the population of another country. This nonsense is actually coming from the leader of a country that is perennially asking for food aid to feed its people.
Just to prove that these deals are not in the interests of these African countries, the lease agreements are shrouded in secrecy. So, it is obvious that the deals are suspect and that they are weighted in favour of the foreign country. Local farmers, it would seem are out of the loop.
“If this was a negotiation between equals, it could be a good thing. It could bring investment, stable prices and predictability to the market,” said Duncan Green, head of research at Oxfam. “But the problem is, [in] this scramble for soil I don’t see any place for the small farmers.” There you are.
One can understand the need of countries to secure food supplies for their populations. And one can also understand the need of these African governments to raise finance in a climate of economic uncertainty. But going by past experiences, one can safely say that these deals will invariably be inimically to African development.
This begs the obvious question. If there is such a demand for higher food production to meet global requirements, why can’t these African governments invest more in agriculture and use the opportunity to lift their populations out of poverty? It’s as easy as that.
Ousmane Badiane, director for Africa at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), makes the case for more investment in African agriculture to take advantage of high food prices. “A rational response to the rise in international food prices requires the recognition that these are not times of crisis in Africa, but times of opportunity and growth. Africa’s chances of dealing successfully with the world food crisis are much better today than at any other time in the continent’s recent past,” he writes in a paper for the IFPRI.
“The strong growth performance of the past 10-15 years provides a solid foundation to build upon and seize the opportunities emanating from the rise in world food prices, which is just starting and is certain to hold for the foreseeable future. Efforts by African governments and their international partners in the agricultural sector should primarily seek to create the conditions for a rapid and strong supply response over the medium to long run in order to sustain the growth recovery in the agricultural sector and beyond. Development partners can help address the short-term impact of the rise in food prices on consumption and fiscal balances by helping African countries meet the higher foreign exchange and budgetary resource requirements, while avoiding distortionary interventions in the sector,” he argues.
This makes sense. And it’s a lot better than leasing land to foreign countries. Those countries that think land lease is the way forward are just sowing seeds of future discontent.
Desmond Davies is former Editor of West Africa magazine in London.