In a disquieting rush to secure food supplies, financial speculators around the world are gobbling up farmland in developing nations and causing land prices to soar. Some call it the new colonialism, but most just call it an old-fashioned land grab.
Land grabbing and food speculation are not just overseas phenomena; they are also happening in North America. Mammoth investment funds have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial markets for commodities like wheat, corn and soybeans, establishing higher prices for consumers and fatter profits for themselves. Other private investors have made bolder, longer-term speculative bets that the world’s inescapable need for food will soon intensify; they are grabbing ownership not just of farmland, but also of fertilizer supplies, grain elevators, and shipping equipment.
This global grab of farmland and supplies raises fundamental questions, for it arises in the context of a worldwide recession born of a crisis in faith (the credit markets), a crisis in shelter (housing), unstable fuel cost, and widespread hunger. Now there are ominous signs of worsening food crisis in the making this year, spurred in part by the ongoing credit crunch that has made it difficult for farmers to get loans, and severe drought in many agricultural zones.
Thus, this week the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is holding a conference in Washington provocatively called “Land Grab: The Race for the World’s Farmlands.”
Note well that the soaring price of rice and wheat over the past two years has sparked riots in more than 30 countries from India to Haiti. Those riots were an initial motivator for the land grab, but it really took off at the end of last year when many big food-exporting nations introduced export controls to ensure that food stayed close to home where it was needed.
Meanwhile, the land-food picture is further challenged by the privatization of water by multinational corporations, and by the specter of drought, which continues to loom over many of Earth’s most productive agricultural regions, including California, Texas, Argentina and China.
All these developments have drawn avid attention in commodity markets, where analysts warn bluntly that substantial price hikes for food are coming. When speculators see an opportunity to make money, historically they have acted out of self-interest and driven prices even higher to increase their profit margin.
The average family in North America does not fully see or feel these titanic changes yet, but they will — inevitably, and likely before the year ends. Our need for food, water, and clean air are fundamental, foundational, inescapable.
Yet in the midst of change, in the midst of rampant consolidation for profit, we have before us other pathways – pathways that lead to better places.
How to respond? Many models and pathways of healthy, sustainable response are already established and available as models. Dozens of them are mentioned in this blog and in particular on the Links page.
Immediate, swift, well-planned and sustained action from citizens can establish clean, healthy, local food systems at the level of individual household, neighborhood, community, city, and region. With high technology, all of these individual, local nodes can be networked, streamlined, and maintained to yield clean food and fields for all the people, rather than manipulating land and food as collateral to produce monetary profits for a few.
As expressed by Eduardo Galeano in an earlier post on this blog, the tendency of the industrial world has been to regard a fundamental element of our native heritage — sharing of the land and resources — as somehow deficient or wrongheaded because it involves no self-interested profit incentive. But free-will cooperation and sharing can help us to establish working systems of food production and food preparation, while also establishing networks of agrarian oases that radiate good environmental health in the towns and cities where we live.
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Also Leopold
The philosophical foundation for the cultural values that existed in many native cultures is that nobody owns the land. It belongs to all. You have the right to use the land. If you have energy, motivation, and ability to work this earth and to take care of it as a steward — bearing in mind and expressing through action respect for the next seven generations of children to be born — then you have a right to use it.
As Trauger Groh and I posited when we wrote Farms of Tomorrow, every human being has a legitimate, native interest, and a basic, unavoidable need to draw sustenance from the land. Thus, we must raise questions and work toward an equitable basis for our legal relationship with the land, because upon this foundation depend our lives, our health, and the character of our relationships with other human beings.
How will we relate to the land? As conquerors, subjugators, and profiteers? Or as stewards who recognize our absolute dependence upon the land for life and growth, who accept our need to be fair and honest with one another, and who act accordingly.
Over many decades the practice of using land as collateral for debt — placing farmland under the burden of a bank mortgage to obtain cash to run the farm — has caused profound difficulty for farmers, and vast suffering. Under this system banks must be paid every month and every year, no matter the weather or the market conditions faced by the farmers. As a consequence, over time – thousands upon thousands of people have been driven from the caretaking of the Earth by the onus of debt. The land grab taking place right now around our globe, driving land, fertilizer, storage, and shipping costs higher, is poised to become an overwhelmingly dominant factor in all of our lives.
Because land is the basis of our physical existence, we need new thinking and new approaches in the way we hold and steward the land.
One possibility, which has been steadily gaining ground, is to gradually protect land suitable for agriculture by purchasing it for the last time and protecting the land for agricultural use through legal, free-will institutions such as land trusts.
To do this, farmland has to be purchased for the final time, and then, out of the free initiative of local people, be placed into forms of trust that protect it from ever again being mortgaged or sold for the sake of private profit. Those non-profit land trusts can then make the land available to qualified people who want to farm the land to provide clean, local food for people (for more information see the Land Trust Alliance, and the American Farmland Trust). Landowners themselves can form such land trusts, or groups of citizens, or churches, or other creative constellations of free men and women, can cooperate locally to buy available land for ecologically sound farming.
This cooperative approach to the land is something that clearly cannot be legislated or otherwise imposed in any way upon humanity. To be acceptable to the diverse populations that share the land, to succeed, every step of progress will have to arise out of the insight, the choice, and the free, honest initiative of people who recognize what is happening to our land and who also recognize the opportunity to take action and follow another pathway forward.
I tried to sell an agriculture easement to my family farm to a land trust so that I could continue to farm but found no takers. As development moves toward the farm, my taxes continue to increase, and I refuse to mortgage the farm to finance the farming venture, I will eventually be forced to sell it and another small farm will be developed for housing for the elite of our country.
The current temporary housing crunch has temporarily eased the development pressures on farm land. However, that will not be sustained. Not only has speculative purchase of farm land to control food prices driven farmers out of business, but the pressures of development has as well. It will take a restructuring of America’s tax system, along with a change of attitude, to keep our farmland producing, and drive the absentee landowners back to the city. I beleive a punitive tax should be levied on the division of former farm land outside city limits, abandonment of tax deductions for any farm expenses born by a taxpayer who does not recieve 51% of his/her income from active production agriculture, and a restructuring of property tax to favor production agriculture over recreational property and retirement hobbies. And, instead of the money the government is pouring into “rural development”, that money could be best used to purchase conservation easements to farms and forest lands to keep them producing food, fiber, and clean water. Until we get serious about protecting our agriculture and forest lands, we will surely see food shortages in the future.
T. C. Knight