On September 6th, 2012, Jose Graziano da Silva, recently-appointed Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and Suma Chakrabarti, President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), co-authored an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal calling for the expansion of private, large-scale agribusiness in the developing world as a means for dealing with international food insecurity. The op-ed was published in the lead up to a large international conference on role of the private sector in the future of agriculture.
Mr. Chakrabarti and Mr. da Silva argued that protectionism and “small and uneconomically sized farms and limited access to capital for modern production inputs” are holding back the expansion of agriculture necessary to feed the growing populations of middle-income and less developed countries. They aver that private land investments, along with coordinated efforts by international organizations and national governments, hold the key to efficient use of the technology, labor, and resources that are necessary to boost sustainable agricultural output.
Social Watch, a network of civil society organizations that monitor international activity, picked up on the backlash to Mr. Chakrabarti’s and Mr. da Silva’s remark. Environmentalist and peasant groups responded to Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by saying that the FAO is “promoting the destruction of peasant and family farms,” and that, where available, the data shows that small-scale farming is actually more efficient in terms of providing affordable food.
The joint FAO-EBRD statement and the response from civil society groups highlight two sides of one of the most important debates in sustainable development: whether to promote or deter large scale agricultural investments. Dubbed as “land grabbing” by much of the international media, the phenomenon of increasing national and international agricultural investments in less developed countries is a topic of particular interest to the research team at the Center for Governance and Sustainability. It is a difficult question to tackle because it raises questions of economics, politics, environment, and cultural sanctity. On the one hand, no one can deny that the large-scale mechanized farms of the West are more productive, especially when considering manpower hours to ouput. On the other, large-scale farms almost always make use of environmentally-damaging heavy fertilizers, create fewer jobs than small-scale farming, and deforest large tracks of land. There is also the question of whether foreign investors in less developed countries actually promote economic development through mechanized agriculture, or if they just turn a profit and leave the land fallow.
The main difficulty with casting judgment on land investment is that on the global scale, it is a recent phenomenon that coincides directly with the food price spike in 2007. The Center team will continue to research and report on this topic through academic review and field work in one of the main sites of investment: the Gambella region of Ethiopia. Feel free to weigh in on the discussion in our comments thread, and stay tuned for more updates on this pressing issue.