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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. 

From the World Bank to pension funds, efforts are under way to regulate land grabs through the creation of codes and standards. The idea is to distinguish those land deals that do meet certain criteria and should be approvingly called "investments" from those that don't and can continue to be stigmatised as land "grabs". Up to now, it was mostly international agencies that were trying to do this. Now, the private sector is engaging in a serious way to set its own rules of the game. Either way, the net result is voluntary self-regulation -- which is ineffective, unreliable and no remedy for the fundamental wrongness of these deals. Rather than help financial and corporate elites to "responsibly invest" in farmland, we need them to stop and divest. Only then can the quite different matter of strengthening and supporting small-scale rural producers in their own territories and communities succeed, for the two agendas clash. In this article, GRAIN gives a quick update on what is going on.

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China is now the world’s largest global food market. What Chinese people eat has repercussions on everyone, because of the increasingly global reach of how and where that food is produced. When China began importing soybeans as animal feed in the late 1990s to support the growth of its factory farms, it ushered in a dramatic agricultural transformation in both China and Latin America. Now Beijing is moving down the same path with maize, its other major feed crop, and global corporations and Chinese companies are scrambling to develop and control centers of supply for this potentially huge market. The fallout is already being felt around the globe: from rural exodus in China, to farmland grabs in Africa, to food inflation in Shanghai triggered by drought in the US. China can and should reverse course by shifting away from industrial meat production to small scale livestock farming based on local sources of feed.

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Land grabbing emerged as one of the most important barriers to the advancement of food sovereignty in Latin America & the Caribbean at a recent meeting of social movement organisations. In advance of a United Nations conference in Buenos Aires addressing food security for the region, a new UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report claiming that land grabbing is restricted to only two major countries, drew condemnation from social movements concerned about the scale of the grabs and their the impact on the lives of millions of peasants, people of Afro-communities, indigenous peoples, family farmers, and fisherfolk.

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Food is a key driver of climate change. How our food gets produced and how it ends up on our tables accounts for around half of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. A new food system could be key driver of solutions to climate change. We don’t need carbon markets or techno-fixes. If measures are taken to restructure agriculture and the larger food system around food sovereignty, small scale farming, agro-ecology and local markets, we could cut global emissions in half within a few decades.

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Large scale agricultural land acquisitions are generating conflicts and controversies around the world. A growing body of reports show that these projects are bad for local communities and that they promote the wrong kind of agriculture for a world in the grips of serious food and environmental crises. Yet funds continue to flow to overseas farmland like iron to a magnet. Why? Because of the financial returns. And some of the biggest players looking to profit from farmland are pension funds, with billions of dollars invested.

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The Government of the Province of Río Negro, Argentina, and one of China's largest agribusiness companies are moving forward on an agreement that hands over thousands of hectares of land for the production of soybean and cereal crops for export. The Río Negro provincial government has touted this project as a “food production agreement” but local communities and people across Argentina are voicing their opposition, denouncing it as a land giveaway for industrial soy production. They call the agreement “a land grabber’s instruction manual”. This issue of Against the grain gives the details.

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Saudi Arabia's strategy to outsource food production will be at the top of the agenda when several heads of state and high-level delegations from African countries arrive in Riyadh for an investor conference on December 4, 2010. In some of these countries, Saudi investors are already acquiring farmland and starting to put the Kingdom's policies into operation. One of their main targets is West Africa's rice lands. New information obtained by GRAIN shows that the Kingdom's most powerful businessmen are pursuing deals in Senegal, Mali and other countries that would give them control over several hundred thousand hectares of the region's most productive farmlands to produce rice for export to Saudi Arabia. The deals will severely undermine national food security and destroy the livelihoods of millions of farmers and pastoralists. All of this is transpiring behind closed doors with African governments and without the knowledge of the affected people or the general public.

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On 7 September 2010, the World Bank finally published its much anticipated report on the global farmland grab. GRAIN's take on the report is that it is both a disappointment and a failure. Very little new and solid data about how these land grab deals are playing out on the ground is presented. The findings that the Bank does articulate -- that the land grab trend is huge and growing, that communities are not benefiting and that the conditions under which most of these deals are being pursued are extremely poor -- corroborate what many have been saying for two years already. The Bank's own direct involvement in the global land grab is hardly mentioned. Most of the report is smoke and mirrors talk about potentials and opportunities, leading us to the conclusion that there is a huge disconnect between what the World Bank says, what is happening on the ground and what is truly needed. Right now, numerous governments and civil society organisations are calling to put a brake of one form or another on these land grab deals, which the study essentially ignores.

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A curious thing happened last week. A lot of people were under the impression that the World Bank was going to release its long-awaited study on global land grabs at its annual land conference in Washington DC on 26 April 2010. This is what GRAIN was told. It's what many journalists were told. And it's what those involved in producing the study expected. But it didn't happen. What's holding the bank back?

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Public is meant to be for people. But, as in evident with Bt crop research in Asia, “public” agricultural research is becoming less about the needs of ordinary people and small farmers and more about scientific control and corporate interests. The recent controversy around Bt brinjal/eggplant in parts of South and South-east Asia, together with the Bt rice research in China's public sector, show that governments and corporations, be they in competition or co-operation, are pushing the same GM crops into Asia's farms and food supply. This is decisively changing the perception of public agricultural research. People are realising that their public agricultural universities and national research institutes may not really be on their side.

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