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Against the grain

Against the grain is a series of short opinion pieces on recent trends and developments in the issues that GRAIN works on. Each one focuses on a specific and timely topic. 

The new farm owners

GRAIN | 20 October 2009 | Against the grain

Corporate investors lead the rush for control over overseas farmland

With all the talk about "food security," and distorted media statements like "South Korea leases half of Madagascar's land," it may not be evident to a lot of people that the lead actors in today's global land grab for overseas food production are not countries or governments but corporations. So much attention has been focused on the involvement of states, like Saudi Arabia, China or South Korea. But the reality is that while governments are facilitating the deals, private companies are the ones getting control of the land. And their interests are simply not the same as those of governments.

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An internal document recently posted on the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) website reveals that IRRI has been advising Saudi Arabia in the context of its strategy to acquire farm land overseas for its own food production.

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Mexico is in the midst of a hellish repeat of Asia's bird flu experience, though on a more deadly scale. Once again, the official response from public authorities has come too late and bungled in cover-ups. And once again, the global meat industry is at the centre of the story, ramping up denials as the weight of evidence about its role grows. Just five years after the start of the H5N1 bird flu crisis, and after as many years of a global strategy against influenza pandemics coordinated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the world is now reeling from a swine flu disaster. The global strategy has failed and needs to be replaced with a public health system that the public can trust.

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Mali, like several other countries in West Africa, recently went from being a net rice exporter to being a major importer. Now the government has embarked on a multimillion-dollar national rice initiative that is supposed to restore self-sufficiency by helping the country’s farmers to produce more.

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In FTAs little attention is paid to clauses like the following one: "... no Party may adopt or maintain any prohibition or restriction on the importation of any good of another Party or on the exportation or sale for export of any good destined for the territory of another Party...". In other words, governments know that they are renouncing their right to control food exports and imports when they sign FTAs.

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The world food crisis is hurting a lot of people, but global agribusiness firms, traders and speculators are raking in huge profits. The fundamental cause of today's food crisis is neoliberal globalisation itself, which has transformed food from a source of livelihood security into a mere commodity to be gambled away, even at the cost of widespread hunger among the world’s poorest people.

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The "Global Seed Vault" buried in a frozen island in Svalbard, Norway, is sadly the latest move in a wider strategy to make ex situ (off site) storage in seed banks the dominant approach to crop diversity conservation. The Vault gives a false sense of security in a world where the crop diversity present in the farmers' fields continues to be eroded and destroyed at an ever-increasing rate and contributes to the access problems that plague the international ex situ system.

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The carnage of poultry, in which 3.7 million birds were culled, in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal is a striking testament to the failure of the global response to the bird flu crisis. In a flash, one of the world’s most dynamic areas of poultry farming has been practically ruined, a priceless stock of biodiversity wiped out, and the livelihoods of millions of poor families pushed to the brink. This has been caused not so much by bird flu as by the response to it.

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IRRI Inc.

GRAIN | 29 November 2007 | Against the grain

Consultative Group's rice research institute goes into business. On November 9, 2007, in the midst of the Asian Seed Congress, IRRI announced the formation of its Hybrid Rice Research and Development Consortium. This lays the foundation for a direct relationship between IRRI and private seed companies: IRRI supplies the parent lines and corporations, who gain exclusive rights to the varieties, handle the marketing.

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Japan is increasingly using free trade agreements (FTAs) to tighten corporate control over seeds and other forms of biodiversity that are crucial to food, agriculture and medicine. Two such deals, sealed this month with the Chilean and Indonesian governments, put Japan in the big league of nations using bilateral trade deals to make seed-saving on the farm a thing of the past.

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