Buying farmland abroad: Outsourcing's third wave
The Economist (London) | May 21st 2009
Rich food importers are acquiring vast tracts of poor countries' farmland. Is this beneficial foreign investment or neocolonialism?
EARLY this year, the king of Saudi Arabia held a ceremony to receive a batch of rice, part of the first crop to be produced under something called the King Abdullah initiative for Saudi agricultural investment abroad. It had been grown in Ethiopia, where a group of Saudi investors is spending $100m to raise wheat, barley and rice on land leased to them by the government. investors are exempt from tax in the first few years and may export the entire crop back home. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) is spending almost the same amount as the investors ($116m) providing 230,000 tonnes of food aid between 2007 and 2011 to the 4.6m Ethiopians it thinks are threatened by hunger and malnutrition.
The Saudi programme is an example of a powerful but contentious trend sweeping the poor world: countries that export capital but import food are outsourcing farm production to countries that need capital but have land to spare. Instead of buying food on world markets, governments and politically influential companies buy or lease farmland abroad, grow the crops there and ship them back.
Supporters of such deals argue they provide new seeds, techniques and money for agriculture, the basis of poor countries’ economies, which has suffered from disastrous underinvestment for decades. Opponents call the projects “land grabs”, claim the farms will be insulated from host countries and argue that poor farmers will be pushed off land they have farmed for generations. What is unquestionable is that the projects are large, risky and controversial. In Madagascar they contributed to the overthrow of a government.
Investment in foreign farms is not new. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 foreign investors rushed to snap up former state-owned and collective farms. Before that there were famous—indeed notorious—examples of European attempts to set up flagship farms in ex-colonies, such as Britain’s ill-fated attempt in the 1940s to turn tracts of southern Tanzania into a limitless peanut prairie (the southern Tanganyika groundnut scheme). The phrase “banana republics” originally referred to servile dictatorships running countries whose economies were dominated by foreign-owned fruit plantations.
But several things about the current fashion are new. One is its scale. A big land deal used to be around 100,000 hectares (240,000 acres). Now the largest ones are many times that. In Sudan alone, South Korea has signed deals for 690,000 hectares, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for 400,000 hectares and Egypt has secured a similar deal to grow wheat. An official in Sudan says his country will set aside for Arab governments roughly a fifth of the cultivated land in Africa’s largest country (traditionally known as the breadbasket of the Arab world)
It is not just Gulf states that are buying up farms. China secured the right to grow palm oil for biofuel on 2.8m hectares of Congo, which would be the world’s largest palm-oil plantation. It is negotiating to grow biofuels on 2m hectares in Zambia, a country where Chinese farms are said to produce a quarter of the eggs sold in the capital, Lusaka. According to one estimate, 1m Chinese farm labourers will be working in Africa this year, a number one African leader called “catastrophic”.
In total, says the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a think-tank in Washington, DC, between 15m and 20m hectares of farmland in poor countries have been subject to transactions or talks involving foreigners since 2006. That is the size of France’s agricultural land and a fifth of all the farmland of the European Union. Putting a conservative figure on the land’s value, IFPRI calculates that these deals are worth $20 billion-30 billion—at least ten times as much as an emergency package for agriculture recently announced by the World Bank and 15 times more than the American administration’s new fund for food security.
If you assume that the land, when developed, will yield roughly two tonnes of grain per hectare (which would be twice the African average but less than that of Europe, America and rich Asia), it would produce 30m-40m tonnes of cereals a year. That is a significant share of the world’s cereals trade of roughly 220m tonnes a year and would be more than enough to meet the appetite for grain imports in the Middle East. What is happening, argues Richard Ferguson, an analyst for Nomura Securities, is outsourcing’s third great wave, following that of manufacturing in the 1980s and information technology in the 1990s.
Several other features of the process are also new. Unlike older projects, the current ones mostly focus on staples or biofuels—wheat, maize, rice, jatropha. The Egyptian and South Korean projects in Sudan are both for wheat. Libya has leased 100,000 hectares of Mali for rice. By contrast, farming ventures used to be about cash crops (coffee, tea, sugar or bananas).
In the past, foreign farming investment was usually private: private investors bought land from private owners. That process has continued, particularly the snapping up of privatised land in the former Soviet Union. Last year a Swedish company called Alpcot Agro bought 128,000 hectares of Russia; South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries paid $6.5m for a majority stake in Khorol Zerno, a company that owns 10,000 hectares of eastern Siberia; Morgan Stanley, an American bank, bought 40,000 hectares of Ukraine in March. And Pava, the first Russian grain processor to be floated, plans to sell 40% of its landowning division to investors in the Gulf, giving them access to 500,000 hectares. Thanks to rising land values and (until recently) rising commodity prices, farming has been one of the few sectors to remain attractive during the credit crunch.
But the majority of the new deals have been government-to-government. The acquirers are foreign regimes or companies closely tied to them, such as sovereign-wealth funds. The sellers are host governments dispensing land they nominally own. Cambodia leased land to Kuwaiti investors last August after mutual prime-ministerial visits. Last year the Sudanese and Qatari governments set up a joint venture to invest in Sudan; the Kuwaiti and Sudanese ministers of finance signed what they called a “giant” strategic partnership for the same purpose. Saudi officials have visited Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam to talk about land acquisitions. The balance between the state and private sectors is heavily skewed in favour of the state.
That makes the current round of land acquisitions different in kind, as well as scale. When private investors put money into cash crops, they tended to boost world trade and international economic activity. At least in theory, they encourage farmers to switch from growing subsistence rice to harvesting rubber for cash; from growing rubber to working in a tyre factory; and from making tyres to making cars. But now, governments are investing in staple crops in a protectionist impulse to circumvent world markets. Why are they doing this and what are the effects?
“Food security is not just an issue for Abu Dhabi or the United Arab Emirates,” says Eissa Mohamed Al Suwaidi of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development. “Recently, it has become a hot issue everywhere.” He is confirming what everyone knows: the land deals are responses to food-market turmoil.
Between the start of 2007 and the middle of 2008, The Economist index of food prices rose 78%; soyabeans and rice both soared more than 130%. Meanwhile, food stocks slumped. In the five largest grain exporters, the ratio of stocks to consumption-plus-exports fell to 11% in 2009, below its ten-year average of over 15%.
It was not just the price rises that rattled food importers. Some of them, especially Arab ones, are oil exporters and their revenues were booming. They could afford higher prices. What they could not afford, though, was the spate of trade bans that grain exporters large and small imposed to keep food prices from rising at home. Ukraine and India banned wheat exports for a while; Argentina increased export taxes sharply. Actions like these raised fears in the Gulf that one day importers might not be able to secure enough supplies at any price. They persuaded many food-importing countries that they could no longer rely on world food markets for basic supplies.