What’s the link between land grabs, trade rules and climate change? Good new briefing from Sophia Murphy

March 12, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

You can rely on Sophia Murphy for crisp, credible analyses of agricultural trade and food issues. Her latest paper, Landsophia_murphy Grabs and Fragile Food Systems, is up to her usual standard. She locates the current row over land grabs in some broader debates that have rather fallen off the agenda, namely globalization and trade rules. Made me come over all nostalgic for the WTO-bashing of yesteryear.

Sophia argues that the globalization and the free trade agreements of the last 20 years have combined with fears over climate change to create the conditions for the current wave of land grabs. But the immediate trigger was the 2008 food price spike, which eroded the confidence of food-importing countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that they could rely on the trading system to feed their people (so many of them started grabbing land instead).

The problem with the WTO is that its insistence on removing import tariffs (which we campaigned on when prices were low) was not matched by any effort to discipline export controls, making it completely irrelevant when prices rose and exporting countries slapped on export taxes to try and keep the food at home, thereby compounding the price spike. Sophia also takes a swing at the WTO’s inability/unwillingness to do anything about corporate concentration in the food sector. When the price spike hit ‘the four companies that between them control an estimated 75 percent or more of the inter­national grain trade saw their profits soar.’

Failures in other areas have aggravated the problem. Food reserves have been run down, biofuels have added a new degree of uncertainty by tying food prices to those of oil and gas (when fossil fuel prices rise, more land gets turned over to biofuels, so less food is produced, so food prices rise). Climate change, both current and rapidly approaching, has only added to that sense of vulnerability on food security.

land grabs logoHow to reduce the pressures that are driving the wave of land grabs? The report has a rather convincing policy shopping list arising from this analysis:

  • Reformed trade rules that ensure export measures are subject to transparency and predictability requirements and that allow all countries policy space for food security policies. She also proposes ways to ease food price spikes by reducing biofuel production during price surges
  • Publicly-managed grain reserves to dampen the effects of supply shocks
  • Readily accessible funding for the poorest food importers, which would be triggered automatically when prices increase sharply in international markets
  • The development of strong national and international laws to govern investment in land, respecting the principles and guidelines set out in the Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure. Tanzania’s recently announced limits on how much land foreign and domestic investors can lease is a hopeful example of a national government taking the initiative to get serious about regulation.

At 12 pages, a very useful addition to the land grabs literature. And in case you missed it here’s what the fuss is about.