Land grabs, biofuel demand raise global food-security risk

Nick Amies, Deutsche Welle
A new report says Europe’s growing demand for biofuels increases the risk of conflict over land and impairs food security. The authors even warn of a potential global crisis.

The report, compiled by international environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth (FoE), says that the amount of land being taken in Africa to feed Europe’s increasing demand for biofuels is “underestimated and out of control.” An area of arable land the size of Denmark – around five million hectares – has been acquired by foreign companies to produce biofuels, mainly for the European market, the report says.

The FoE warns that even more land will be required for biofuels if the European Union is to reach its target of 10 percent of transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020.

Africans have protested unfair land deals

“Our research shows that Europe’s demand for biofuels is a major driver of land grabbing in Africa,” Adrian Bebb, food and agriculture campaigner for FoE Europe, told Deutsche Welle. “Local communities are facing increasing hunger and food insecurity just so Europe can fuel its cars.”

The pressure on local communities, regional and national governments in the 11 African nations investigated in the report’s research could lead to internal conflicts and potentially spread across borders as arable land, forests and natural vegetation are cleared for biofuel production.

Internal African unrest building over land rights

According to a controversial leaked World Bank report on land grabs – which it has so far refused to release publicly – local communities are being bypassed in consultations between land-acquiring companies and African governments, a situation which has already led to conflicts over land rights. The report, cited by FoE, claims that there have been protests in Tanzania, Madagascar and Ghana following land grabs by foreign companies.

Food shortages could lead to rioting, experts fear

“The expansion of biofuels on our continent is transforming forests and natural vegetation into fuel crops, taking away food-growing farmland from communities, and creating conflicts with local people over land ownership,” said Mariann Bassey, food and agriculture coordinator for Environmental Rights Action/FoE Nigeria.

“The aim of the investments taking place at the moment is to satisfy the food or agrofuel needs of foreign governments; some Gulf States, Asian countries and also EU-countries, and in the case of private companies, the hope for lucrative gains by speculating with land or trading agricultural goods,” Alexa Emundts from MISEREOR, a German development organization affiliated with the International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity Alliance, told Deutsche Welle.

“Most of the investments are done by a broad range of private companies, but there are also joint ventures with governments or purely government-lead investments from a number of Gulf States, China, India and others.”

The large scale investments in African land carry “a high risk for the local population’s food security,” Edmundts added…

…Food shortages and conflicts a possible consequence

With increasing demand for biofuel production reducing areas of arable land around the world, experts fear that the ultimate impact on food security will be global rather than local. Food shortages bring their own threat of instability and unrest. Resources and commodities used in food production will become increasingly sought after, and regions providing these will become more important and protected.

“When the food prices spiked in 2008-2009, we saw serious riots and the governments of Haiti and Madagascar fell,” said FoE’s Adrian Bebb. “Over the coming years we will see an increase in competition for land and natural resources, especially to meet the demand for biofuels … Biofuels also need a lot of water and this could be a sticking point between nations.”…
(2 Sept 2010)
The report can be found here

Commercial Organic Farms Have Better Fruit and Soil, Lower Environmental Impact, Study Finds

Washington State University, ScienceDaily
Side-by-side comparisons of organic and conventional strawberry farms and their fruit found the organic farms produced more flavorful and nutritious berries while leaving the soil healthier and more genetically diverse.

“Our findings have global implications and advance what we know about the sustainability benefits of organic farming systems,” said John Reganold, Washington State University Regents professor of soil science and lead author of a paper published in the peer-reviewed online journal, PLoS ONE. “We also show you can have high quality, healthy produce without resorting to an arsenal of pesticides.”

The study is among the most comprehensive of its kind, analyzing 31 chemical and biological soil properties, soil DNA, and the taste, nutrition and quality of three strawberry varieties on more than two dozen commercial fields — 13 conventional and 13 organic.

“There is no paper in the literature that comprehensively and quantitatively compares so many indices of both food and soil quality at multiple sampling times on so many commercial farms,” said Reganold. Previous Reganold studies of “sustainability indicators” on farms in the Pacific Northwest, California, British Columbia, Australia, and New Zealand have appeared in the journals Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

All the farms in the current study were in California, home to 90 percent of the nation’s strawberries and the center of an ongoing debate about the use of soil fumigants. Conventional farms in the study used the ozone-depleting methyl bromide, which is slated to be replaced by the highly toxic methyl iodide over the protests of health advocates and more than 50 Nobel laureates and members of the National Academy of Sciences. In July, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked the EPA to reconsider its approval of methyl iodide…

Among their findings:

  • The organic strawberries had significantly higher antioxidant activity and concentrations of ascorbic acid and phenolic compounds.
  • The organic strawberries had longer shelf life.
  • The organic strawberries had more dry matter, or, “more strawberry in the strawberry.”
  • Anonymous testers, working at times under red light so the fruit color would not bias them, found one variety of organic strawberries was sweeter, had better flavor, and once a white light was turned on, appearance. The testers judged the other two varieties to be similar…

(2 Sept 2010)
Finally a bit more organic ammunition in the continuing organic vs. conventional food wars. -KS

Fears grow over global food supply

Javier Blas and Jack Farchy, Financial Times
Wheat prices rose further on Friday in the wake of Russia’s decision to extend its grain export ban by 12 months, raising fears about a return to the food shortages and riots of 2007-08.

In Mozambique, where a 30 per cent rise in bread prices triggered riots on Wednesday and Thursday, the government said seven people had been killed and 288 wounded.

Vladimir Putin’s announcement on Thursday extended an export ban first introduced last month until late December 2011, sending wheat and other cereals prices to a near two-year high. It came as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation called an emergency meeting to discuss the wheat shortage.

Wheat prices

Find out what is behind the recent spike in wheat prices in our interactive graphic. Plus: video analysis and country-by-country data

In Maputo, trade and industry minister Antonio Fernandes told a national radio station on Friday that the riots had caused 122m meticais ($3.3m) of damage. Police opened fire on demonstrators after thousands turned out to protest against the price hikes, burning tyres and looting food warehouses.

Although agricultural officials and traders insist that wheat and other crop supplies are more abundant than in 2007-08, officials fear the food riots could spread…
(2 Sept 2010)
Globalisation ain’t lookin’ so good here right now. -KS

Recommended by EB contributor Jeffrey J. Brown who writes:

The article covers the ban on Russian wheat exports, but the “FELM” (Food Export Land Model) premise is the same as the ELM (Export Land Model), i.e., domestic demand is generally satisfied before a product is exported–and therefore any production declines result in steep, and generally accelerating, decline rates in net exports.