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Corporate locusts leave hunger behind

Since 2006, corporations and countries have spent $30 billion buying up 20 million hectares of fertile farmland – an area that equates to a fifth of all the agricultural land in the European Union. The chief culprits of this obscene land grab are countries that accumulated massive surpluses from the boom in oil prices and in the export of consumer goods.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are using their oil wealth and China, the income from huge trade surpluses, according to figures from the International Food Policy Research Institute. The Saudis have created a corporation, Foras, specifically to buy up land to grow rice. It is financed by the Islamic Development Bank, the Saudi government and private investors. Over a seven-year period, Foras aims to produce seven million tons of rice on 700,000 hectares of land in Senegal and Mali; it already has a rice farm in Mauritania. Other target countries are Sudan, Uganda and Niger.

The Ethiopian government has seized nearly 3 million hectares of land from its own people and put it up for sale to foreign companies or governments (in this instance, countries and corporations are virtually indistinguishable). This is a huge part of the country’s fertile land, and is happening when millions of Ethiopians are threatened with malnutrition and possibly starvation as a result of low rainfall.

The number of Ethiopians who need emergency food aid rose from 4.9 million in January to 6.2 million in June. There are famine alerts in Ethiopia, Burkina Fasso, Somalia, Senegal and Kenya. The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) says 3.8 million Kenyans are at risk and in need of emergency food aid.

All over the world the poorest people are beginning to suffer from hunger, following a 50% rise in the price of staples over the last six months. In the United States the percentage of people suffering “food insecurity” ranges from 6% of the population in wealthier states to as high as 15% in poorer parts of the country.

Global food stocks are low; drought, hurricanes, floods, late and failed rains have ruined crops in many parts of the world. High oil prices have raised the price of fertilizer, leading to lower yields. And of course land is being turned over to bio-fuels.

This crisis shows not only capitalism’s rapaciousness, but also its failure as a system of human economy. The so-called “green revolution”, which was implemented from the 1950s onwards in countries like India, was meant to solve hunger and lead to self-sufficiency. So why are countries like Ethiopia now seeking to outsource food production?

The application of vast quantities of fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides (a system the World Bank still seeks to impose on Africa, and which the land grabbers will also use) is an abject failure and will wreak ever greater havoc on already fragile eco-systems.

What we are witnessing is the steady erosion of the world’s fertility overall. Agri-business claims its methods are based on an advanced understanding of farming; but this is not the case. It is based on a narrow capitalist short-term approach, which takes into account neither the past nor the future but only the productive and profitable present. Moving locust-like across the globe, the agri-corporations leave desert behind them.

To achieve an end to hunger, requires first a revolution in land ownership and second, a significant transformation in the way we relate to nature, where we continuously restore fertility by recycling waste products and applying them to the soil. If the cost of farming in this way leaves no room for private profit, then we should transform the corporations into non-profit co-operatives.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
11 September 2009

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