28.05.2024 |

IPES-Food: Land inequality threatens the future of farming and food security

Pressures on farmland have increased (Photo: CC0, Pixabay)

A new wave of land grabbing, a surge in green grabs for carbon schemes, the rising loss of farmland to mining, urbanization and mega-developments, as well as the loss of control over food production and land use are putting enormous pressures on farmland and small-scale food producers, a new IPES-Food report has revealed. These pressures lead to widespread land concentration and degradation, critically undermining the livelihoods of farmers, pastoralists, Indigenous Peoples, and marginalized groups and posing major threats to food security. According to the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), a global thinktank that unites 25 food system experts from around the world, land inequality is on the rise in all regions. Since 2000, an area twice the size of Germany has been acquired through transnational land deals. Between 2008 and 2022, land prices nearly doubled globally – and tripled in Central-Eastern Europe. “Land isn’t just dirt beneath our feet, it’s the bedrock of our food systems keeping us all fed. Yet we’re seeing soaring land prices and grabs driving an unprecedented ‘land squeeze’, accelerating inequality and threatening food production,” says IPES-Food expert Susan Chomba who works at the World Resources Institute, Kenya.

“Land squeeze” is also the title of the report that was released on May 12th and presented and discussed at an online event on May 28th. “Today’s land inequality is rooted in long-standing processes, structures and narratives that uphold powerful interests and exclude certain groups. However, those processes are continually evolving, and it is crucial to capture the latest, emerging dynamics as they drive land inequality in the present,” the authors of the report write. For this reason, they analyse four trends behind the current pressures on land. The first driver is what they dub “Land grabbing 2.0”, a dynamic characterised by various forms of deregulation, financialization and rapid resource extraction. The financial crash and food price crisis of 2007-2008 unleashed a huge wave of land grabs. Investors, agri-food companies, and sovereign wealth funds acquired large areas of farmland around the world. The ‘land rush’ slowed down around 2013, but the pressures never went away, the authors explain. Powerful governments, financial actors, speculators, and big agribusinesses are gaining control over land through new waves of land grabbing. “The food price spikes that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have revived ‘feed the world’ narratives, sparking a renewed push to secure land for export commodity production, with agribusinesses, investors and foreign governments finding new ways to unlock and appropriate farmland,” the authors point out. Land grabs are also increasingly being deployed to seize control over other key resources such as freshwater, forests, and coastline with the aim of rapidly extracting value from them (e.g. through water-intensive cash cropping).

Governments are increasingly urged to deregulate their land markets and adopt pro-investor policies. In Africa and Asia, large swathes of land are being appropriated through ‘special economic zones’ and ‘growth corridors’, in the context of expanding bilateral trade and investment agreements. A key dimension of Land grabbing 2.0 is the increasing role of ‘South-South’ land deals and investments. China, Brazil, India, and other emerging economies are becoming increasingly prominent in foreign direct investment flows. Agri-food trade, and development cooperation, with South-South trade is now accounting for a quarter of total agricultural trade flows. Land is increasingly being turned into a financial asset, with powerful actors entering financialized land markets. Agricultural investment funds rose ten-fold from 2005 to 2018, and now regularly include farmland as a stand-alone asset class, with US investors doubling their stakes in farmland since the pandemic. By 2023, there were some 960 active funds specialised in food and agricultural assets, managing over $150 billion. The IPES-Food experts highlight that there is also a major push to digitize land registers underway in the Global South. Although intended to strengthen land tenure, these processes could end up feeding financial markets with data and exacerbating land grabs.

The second driver of the current land squeeze identified by the report are green grabs. Since land is an important carbon sink, the enshrinement of environmental goals in international agreements meant a fast rise in the interest in land-based conservation, carbon removal and offsetting. This unleashed a new wave of ‘green grabs’, which now account for around 20% of large-scale land deals. Governments have pledged to allocate land areas equivalent to total global cropland – almost 1.2 billion hectares of land – for ‘carbon removal’ initiatives alone. “The rush for dubious carbon projects, tree planting schemes, clean fuels, and speculative buying is displacing small-scale farmers and Indigenous Peoples,” says Susan Chomba. “In Africa, powerful governments, polluting fossil fuel companies, and big conservation groups are elbowing their way onto our land under the veneer of green goals, directly threatening the very communities bearing the brunt of climate change,” she adds. The authors criticise that carbon and biodiversity offset markets are facilitating huge land transactions and bringing farmland and forests under the control of major polluters. In addition, land and resources are also being appropriated for biofuels and green energy production, including water-intensive ‘green hydrogen’ projects, and the conversion of farmland to solar parks that pose risks to local food production.

Thirdly, land is being taken out of agriculture and repurposed for extractive industries and mega-developments. For example, urbanization and mega-infrastructure developments in Asia and Africa are claiming prime farmland. In particular, a global mining boom is increasing pressures on farmland. Mining projects accounted for 14% of recorded large-scale land deals over the past ten years, eating up some 7.7 million hectares of farmland. Demand for sand and gravel is growing rapidly with urbanization, phosphates are required in growing quantities for fertilizer production, and demand for ‘transition minerals’ – cobalt, copper, lithium, and zinc among others, also referred to as ‘critical minerals’, for solar photovoltaic plants, wind farms, hydrogen energy storage, and batteries in electric vehicles – is also on the rise. Companies based in China account for the majority of mining operations for transition minerals, both in China and on the African continent. Mining projects and the related land conversions threaten food producers and communities, leading to displacement, conflicts, and environmental degradation. Instead of protecting communities, dubious investment laws protect the polluters. The report cites Colombia as an example where several transnational companies successfully sued the government for attempting to halt a large-scale mining project.

The fourth driver has to do with industrial agriculture: Agri-food sector consolidation, the ongoing spread of industrial agriculture and input-intensive feed crop monocultures and factory farms, as well as dietary shifts are rapidly degrading land and eroding farmers’ and communities’ control over their land and how it is used. “High input costs, spiralling land prices, and boom-bust cycles are endemic in corporate-controlled industrial food systems. These dynamics are creating systematic economic precarity for farmers – effectively forcing them to ‘get big or get out’,” says IPES-Food. The concentration and control of land is advancing through various approaches that integrate smallholders into corporate value chains. One such business model is contract farming, which is allowing agri-food companies to gain effective control over farmland and impose production choices and conditions – often locking farmers into unsustainable land use and precarious livelihoods. “Studies continue to demonstrate that contract farming schemes reduce farmers’ autonomy over what to grow, placing de facto control of farmland in the hands of the contracting corporation, and transforming farmers into wage labourers on their own land,” the report finds.

To sum up: All these current trends lead to an unprecedented land squeeze, resulting in widespread land degradation and loss, land fragmentation, land concentration, a surge in land inequality, rural poverty, and food insecurity – and potentially a tipping point for smallholder agriculture. The global picture of land degradation is already alarming, the authors write: More than 70% of the Earth’s land area has been altered from its natural state by human activity and up to 40% of the world’s land is degrading. Some 80% of global arable lands are now affected by land degradation, with more than 1.3 billion food producers depending on unproductive land. Another problem for many farmers is the declining size of their farmland. Some 84% of the world’s farmers cultivate plots of under 2 hectares, with average farm size remaining below 2 hectares in Africa and Asia. In some places – including in Ghana, Mozambique, Senegal, and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as across Asia – producers are being confined to shrinking plots of land as a result of demographic growth, sub-divisions, and land grabs. Land fragmentation, the reliance on small, often dispersed plots, can be a result of difficulties accessing larger or more proximate plots of land. It is sometimes a legacy of historical and present-day land grabs.

And then there is the rapidly advancing concentration of farmland in all regions. According to a recent study, 1% of the world’s largest farms now operate 70% of the global farmland. The concentration is particularly acute in North America, Europe, and Latin America – with the top 1% controlling 80% of Colombian farmland, and 0.3% of Brazilian holdings accounting for 25% of all farmland. Land price inflation is a major problem. Between 2008 and 2022, land prices nearly doubled globally and tripled in Central-Eastern Europe. In the UK, an influx of investment from pension funds and private wealth caused a doubling of farmland prices from 2010 to 2015. In Brazil, the states with the greatest investor speculation on farmland saw an average 200% increase in land prices from 2008 to 2017, with prices soaring by 451% in Maranhão. “Imagine trying to start a farm when 70% of farmland is already controlled by just 1% of the largest farms – and when land prices have risen for 20 years in a row, like in North America. That’s the stark reality young farmers face today,” said IPES-Food expert Nettie Wiebe. “Farmland is increasingly owned not by farmers but by speculators, pension funds, and big agribusinesses looking to cash in. Land prices have skyrocketed so high it’s becoming impossible to make a living from farming. This is reaching a tipping point – small and medium scale farming are simply being squeezed out.”

But what can be done in order to stop these developments? “To halt the land squeeze, restore equitable access to land, and rebuild smallholder livelihoods, it is necessary to stem the emerging land grabs and green grabs, and to undertake bold social and agrarian reforms, building on the innovative and powerful steps farmers and communities are already taking to defend their land, assert their rights, and forge new collective forms of ownership and financing,” the authors write. They identified three broad leverage points and 11 specific recommendations. The first leverage point is to build integrated land, environmental, and food systems governance to halt green grabs, recentre communities, and ensure a just transition. IPES-Food stresses that this must put community-based approaches at the heart of climate and biodiversity action, including helping communities to map and defend their own land. The expert panel says that community-managed land systems are the best example of how to reconcile ecosystem protection and food production, and these approaches – currently peripheral in the Global Biodiversity Framework – should become a central tool for meeting global biodiversity goals. Leverage point 2 is to get speculative capital out of land markets, and get land into the hands of farmers. Measures include capping land acquisitions, giving farmers first right of refusal, and cracking down on abusive land-based carbon offsets. But the authors also recommend promoting alternative forms of land ownership and access for small and medium farmers – including innovative group ownership and financing models. Thirdly, IPES-Food calls for a new social contract: “A new deal for farmers and rural communities is needed to break the vicious cycle of rural poverty, livelihood insecurity and land inequality. Access to land and secure tenure must be combined with systemic, structural support for small-scale food production, pensions, insurance, and debt relief for farmers, investment in rural infrastructures, and an end to harmful trade liberalization. To achieve these goals, it may be necessary to undertake comprehensive land and agrarian reform processes, and bold steps to redistribute land.” (ab)

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