Science & Nutrition

'Land grabbing' could help feed at least 300 million people, study suggests

30-Jun-2014
Last updated the 30-Jun-2014 at 12:08 GMT - By Nathan Gray+
'Land grabbing' could help feed at least 300 million people, study suggests
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Crops grown on "land-grabbed" areas in developing countries have the potential to feed an extra 100 million people worldwide, new research has suggested.

Improved infrastructure brought about by foreign investment could increase the productivity of subsistence farmlands in countries like Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and could mean these lands can feed at least 300 million people around the world. This is compared to about 190 million people that could be fed if the land was left tended to by the local population, say researchers writing in Environmental Research Letters.

"Our study has provided a comprehensive assessment of the amount of food that can potentially be produced in land acquired by foreign investors in countries such as Sudan and Indonesia,” explained the researchers behind the study.

Le by Maria Cristina Rulli from Politecnico di Milano, Italy, and Paolo D'Odorico from University of Virginia, USA, the team noted that the large-scale acquisition of land by foreign governments and business — more commonly known as land grabbing — is a contentious issue, particularly in Africa where a large number of deals have taken place in regions facing food security problems and malnutrition.

Some argue that investment by foreign governments and business will drastically improve crop yields, generate new jobs and bring new knowledge and infrastructure to often deprived areas. Others highlight the fact that any food grown is often exported to other regions and argue that such deals can strip local communities of their land, water and natural resources, leaving them in a far worse state.

"Policy makers need to be aware that if this food were used to feed the local populations it would be sufficient to abate malnourishment in each of these countries even without investments aiming at the closure of the yield gap. Such investments would lead to substantial improvements in crop yields mainly in African countries.”

‘Land-grabbing’ research

The research team set out to quantify the maximum amount of food that could be produced from crops grown on acquired lands and the number of people that this could feed. They also compared the use of traditional farming techniques to industrialised agricultural methods, to come up with the yield gap.

By using a unique dataset of all land deals greater than 200 hectares occurring after 2000, the researchers mapped the spatial extent of the acquired land, the dominant crop, and whether a deal was concluded with a signed or oral contract, or just intended with an expression of interest.

From this, they calculated the potential maximum crop yield from each of these deals and then used the crop's food calories to determine the amount of people it could feed.

If all of the acquired lands were farmed to their full capacity (a 100% closure of the yield gap) the team found that there would be a 308% increase in rice production, a 280% increase in maize production, a 148% increase in sugar cane production, and a 130% increase in oil palm production.

Taking into account the proportion of crops that can be used for food production, as well as the amount needed for a "balanced diet", the results showed that between 300 and 550 million people could be fed by crops grown in the acquired land, compared with between 190 and 370 million people that could be fed if the local community used the land without making major investments, the team calculated.

"At the moment there are still open questions which would help inform the debate over what happens to acquired land such as, what happens to food produced? Is it shipped abroad? Were these lands already used for agriculture prior to the acquisition, and (if so) for the cultivation of what crops? With what yields?” noted the authors. “Answers to these questions would allow us to quantify the decrease in food available to the local communities, and come up with management strategies to mitigate possible negative impacts on the local communities of large scale land acquisition."

The team also revealed that the most targeted countries for ‘land grabs’ are Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the former Sudan. Together, these nations account for around 82% of the total food calories that can be produced by acquired croplands worldwide, the research found.

Source: Environmental Research Letters
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/9/6/064030
“Food appropriation through large scale land acquisitions”
Authors: Maria Cristina Rulli and Paolo D'Odorico

Related topics: Food prices, Sustainable sourcing, Science & Nutrition