“Land grabs” and Responsible Agricultural Investment in Africa

Recently, a paper was published that supports land grabbing for food security. The paper suggests that the land in question is  ‘marginally utilised’ and land grabbing will lead to more food being produced.

In the article, the authors argue,

It is expected that in the long run large scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) for commercial farming will bring the technology required to close the existing crops yield gaps… We show how up to 300–550 million people could be fed by crops grown in the acquired land, should these investments in agriculture improve crop production and close the yield gap.

 

The article is: Maria Cristina Rulli & Paolo D’Odorico (2014) “Food appropriation through large scale land acquisitions” Environmental Research Letters. 9: 064030 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/9/6/06403
http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/9/6/064030/pdf/1748-9326_9_6_064030.pdf

Timothy Wise has posted a reply on the tripple crisis blog:  “Land grabs” and Responsible Agricultural Investment in Africa

Here are some snippets:

In this case, these seemingly well-intentioned Italian economists came up with the dramatic but useless estimate that global land grabs could feed 190-550 million people in developing countries. The heroic assumptions they needed to get there should have stranded them on a deserted island, because they make no sense in the real world.

 

• Assume land grabs produce staple food. (Mostly, they don’t.)
• Assume such assumed food is consumed domestically. (Overwhelmingly it’s exported.)
• Assume the calories they might produce go to hungry people. (They don’t, they go to people who can afford them.)
• Assume calories are all that’s needed to nourish someone. (They aren’t.)
• Assume productivity-enhancing investments on such land would be made for an assumed market of hungry consumers. (They wouldn’t, the hungry are no real market at all because they have no effective buying power.)
• Assume the grabbed land didn’t displace anyone from producing food. (According to the same data relied on by these economists, most projects have displaced farmers.)

Perhaps the most absurd assumption, though, is that the governance mechanisms exist, at the national, international, or corporate levels, to manage the surge of investment we’ve seen since the food price spikes of 2007-8. Trust me, they don’t, which is why the UN’s Committee on World Food Security is meeting in Rome this week to negotiate the RAI guidelines.

 

Early work published by these authors on the topic has been critiqued, for example:

  • Ian Scoones, Ruth Hall, Saturnino M. Borras Jr, Ben White & Wendy Wolford (2013) The politics of evidence: methodologies for understanding the global land rush, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40:3, 469-483, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2013.801341 Available:  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2013.801341

Ian Scoones, Ruth Hall, Saturnino M. Borras Jr, Ben White & Wendy Wolford (2013) The politics of evidence: A response to Rulli and D’Odorico, The Journal of Peasant Studies,40:5, 911-912, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2013.853045
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2013.853045

The authors replied here: 

Maria Cristina Rulli & Paolo D’Odorico (2013) The science of evidence:the value of global studies on land rush, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40:5, 907-909, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2013.853044
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2013.853044

Maria Cristina Rulli & Paolo D’Odorico (2013) Reply to ‘The politics of evidence: a response to Rulli and D’Odorico’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40:5, 913-914, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2013.853046
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2013.853046

 

5 thoughts on ““Land grabs” and Responsible Agricultural Investment in Africa

  1. Timothy White, author of the original blog post on Triple Crisis, has distorted the message of the research by Rulli et al (2014). What the research team did was try to quantify how much food could *ideally* be cultivated on the total area of large-scale land acquisitions around the world and how much people could *ideally* be fed by the food produced on this area: “up to 300–550 million people could be fed by crops grown in the acquired land, should these investments in agriculture improve crop production and close the yield gap. In contrast, about 190–370 million people could be supported by this land without closing of the yield gap.” Their research was a simple calculation – not an ethical evaluation. Rulli et al. did not express themselves in favour of large-scale land acquisitions. To the contrary – they say that “these numbers raise some concern because the food produced in the acquired land is typically exported to other regions, while the target countries exhibit high levels of malnourishment. Conversely, if used for domestic consumption, the crops harvested in the acquired land could ensure food security to the local populations.”

    Finally, Jessica Duncan, author of the blog post above, discredits the work of Rulli et al. (2014) by harking back to criticism they received on a previous publication. Going back to that original criticism, one discovers that they were criticised because they used “quick and dirty” data (sic). Which data? The data from the first LandMatrix data set, published in 2012. In 2013 the LandMatrix partnership completely revised its data set and put a new version online in July 2013. For their latest publication in Environmental Research Letters, Rulli et al used this new LandMatrix data set.

  2. Timothy Wise, author of the original blog post on Triple Crisis, has distorted the message of the research by Rulli et al (2014). What the research team did was try to quantify how much food could *ideally* be cultivated on the total area of large-scale land acquisitions around the world and how much people could *ideally* be fed by the food produced on this area: “up to 300–550 million people could be fed by crops grown in the acquired land, should these investments in agriculture improve crop production and close the yield gap. In contrast, about 190–370 million people could be supported by this land without closing of the yield gap.” Their research was a simple calculation – not an ethical evaluation. Rulli et al. did not express themselves in favour of large-scale land acquisitions. To the contrary – they say that “these numbers raise some concern because the food produced in the acquired land is typically exported to other regions, while the target countries exhibit high levels of malnourishment. Conversely, if used for domestic consumption, the crops harvested in the acquired land could ensure food security to the local populations.”

    Finally, Jessica Duncan, author of the blog post above, discredits the work of Rulli et al. (2014) by harking back to criticism they received on a previous publication. Going back to that original criticism, one discovers that they were criticised because they used “quick and dirty” data (sic). Which data? The data from the first LandMatrix data set, published in 2012. In 2013 the LandMatrix partnership completely revised its data set and put a new version online in July 2013. For their latest publication in Environmental Research Letters, Rulli et al used this new LandMatrix data set.

  3. Thanks for the comments Jan. I am glad you raised the point about the number of caveats and cautions raised in the article, they are indeed fundamental to their argument.

    In presenting the 2013 debate that took place in the Journal of Peasant Studies I was not intending to “hark back” on criticism but rather show the evolution of the debate.

    My concerns with Rulli and D’Odorico (2014) is not the use of the data set. The LandMatrix is a great resource and the best data that exists on the subject, as far as I know. My concerns lie with the implications of the calculations, which as you note are not ethical evaluations. While they are ideal types, we can agree, I am sure, that such calculations have potential political consequences. Indeed, the socio-political consequences of large-scale land acquisitions are significant. Rulli and D’Odorico list some of them in the article, including:

    – lack of informed consent
    – conversion from staples crops to non-food crops
    – limited consideration of social and environmental impacts of conversion
    – promulgating the idea that the land being acquired is not used or marginally used
    – exporting crops harvested on acquired land
    – inadequate compensation for land
    – reduced access to food
    – investors seldom live up to expectations

    Given the implications of such acquisitions, what is the purpose of quantifying the amount of food commodities that can be produced on the acquired land?

    The justification for such a calculation (an ideal type) is unclear to me when it ignores fundamental systemic problems linked to use and control of resources, labour, ecology, distribution, culturally appropriate food, land rights, etc. This is also what I understand Tim Wise’s concern to be, although I won’t speak for him.

    The questions I have about this article are thus less methodological and more political: what does such a calculation offer if it fails to take into account the very challenges and problems it acknowledges? Is this science for science’s sake?

    I take your point that their article is not explicitly a defense of large-scale land acquisition, but they do conclude that “[w]hile there are some pros in the increase in agricultural production that could result from large scale investments, some measures should be in place to ensure that the benefits are shared with the local population”(pg 7). And yes, agricultural production is not food production. Furthermore, they advance the argument for large scale agribusiness investment (and thus by extension, a transition to more intensive production systems) for enhancing food security (pg 7). There is a great deal of debate on the future of agriculture and food and how to feed the world, but there is also a great deal of evidence that conventional agriculture is not an option. If we ask “can conventional agriculture feed the world?”, we know the answer is no (see Tittonell, 2013 http://edepot.wur.nl/258457).

    1. Jessica, the purpose of that calculation was not “science for science’s sake”. As you can see the science is a simple one (mostly simple accounting). but the goal was to quantify the magnitude of the phenomenon from the standpoint of food security. How much food is potentially grabbed from these acquired lands?
      I don’t see why you have a problem with that.

      I also want to stress that we had a reply to Tim Wise on that blob but it was never posted by that blog administrator. His criticism was not supported. Was based on a press release of our article rather than on the article itself.

      In case you are interested, I am pasting that reply here. Finally, I think we had adequately replied to the criticism raised in 2013 debate that took place in the Journal of Peasant Studies. Since that debate is not relevant to the points raised by Tim Wise and yourself, I don’t even see why you bring it up…other to implicitly discredit our work… but it could be just an impression.

      Reply to Tim Wise’s blog entry:

      —————————-
      Dr. Timothy Wise ether misunderstood or did not read our paper titled FOOD APPROPRIATION TROUGH LARGE SCALE LAND ACQUISITION. His blog entries are based more on the title of a PRESS RELEASE than on the article itself.

      We strongly encourage blog readers and everyone is interested in this topic to read our paper, which is available free of charge at
      http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/9/6/064030/pdf/1748-9326_9_6_064030.pdf
      The article calculates the number of people who could be fed by the crops cultivated in lands acquired by large scale investors. It answers to the question “how many people can be fed by the acquired land?” We found that a substantial number of people could be fed by those lands and stressed how most of the target countries are affected by malnourishment. In the final discussion we refer to the ethical implications of this phenomenon. Nowhere in the manuscript we state that land grabs could feed 190-550 million people. It can’t be said that we are sympathetic of these large scale investments in agriculture. The title itself “ Food APPROPRIATION through large scale land acquisitions” alludes to the fact that food is taken away. We could not use the word “grabbing” because we did not have conclusive evidence of the lack of informed consent and involvement of the local populations in the decision process for all of the many land deals included in our study. The readers should bear in mind that an article published in the peer reviewed literature needs to be supported by data rather than rushed claims. Common sense statements such as “(Mostly, they don’t.)”, “(Overwhelmingly it’s exported.)”, “(They don’t, they go to people who can afford them.)”, … – though likely true for many case studies – cannot be used in this global assessment unless they are verified case-by-case. Otherwise the study loses credibility. Unfortunately, to date such a global assessment is still missing. Therefore we had to make some assumptions that are clearly presented in the paper. As any reader can see, our assumptions do not correspond to what it is written in this blog! For example, the author of this blog states “the most absurd assumption, though, is that the governance mechanisms exist, at the national, international, or corporate levels, to manage the surge of investment we’ve seen since the food price spikes of 2007-8 “. But where in the paper do we make this assumption? What is absurd here is that the author of this blog has not even read the paper or is misquoting us. He defines our study “useless” and quickly dismisses it. We wonder whether the same adjective (”useless”) should rather be used for his blog commentary. What are we trying to do here? Are we having a constructive debate on a major issue we care about, or indulging to the destructive and divisive attitude of spitting on each other’s face just to claim expertise in this catchy debate? If we have data, information, photos, reports that can help us further in this study, let’s find a way to share them through one of the many portals that already exist.

      The discussion and conclusion sections of our paper stress the implications of large scale land acquisition on food security and readers can easily recognize the message of our study. It is always a good idea to read a scientific article before writing about it. It is not appropriate to comment on an article relying only on the title of a press release. The misinformed message presented in the blog doesn’t provide any valuable or credible contribution to the debate on such an important issue as land grabbing . On the other hand the results of our paper provide the first quantitative assessment of FOOD APPROPRIATION TROUGH LARGE SCALE LAND ACQUISITIONS, and contributes to the debate on food security in grabbed countries. We encourage again the readers to check out our (open access) article at :
      http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/9/6/064030/pdf/1748-9326_9_6_064030.pdf

  4. Reblogged this on Dr. B. A. Usman's Blog and commented:
    “It is expected that in the long run large scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) for commercial farming will bring the technology required to close the existing crops yield gaps… We show how up to 300–550 million people could be fed by crops grown in the acquired land, should these investments in agriculture improve crop production and close the yield gap” – Authors

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