A stunning press release from the University of Virginia on Friday put some baldly provocative language up top in its description of a new study inspired by the large vast gap in yields between traditional farmers in many poor countries and what some 21st-century ag-industry mega-farmers could do.
It says the crops grown on “land-grabbed” areas in just a few select, poor countries could feed an extra 100 million people worldwide if subsistence farmers there were replaced via what landgrabbing means in this context: “large-scale acquisition of land by foreign governments and business.”
Those are quotes plucked for their visceral impact – neo-colonialism, anybody? – but read the whole thing for yourself. It backs off from any implied endorsement of rich societies muscling in on farmlands in far-off and vulnerable places. It does recognize that the big caveat is that the land go to food, not to biofuels or to cotton or to beef production or something else that does not feed many people the way that staple grains and root veggies etc. can. It serves properly as a tip sheet for reporters. Nonetheless its opening tone has, to these eyes, a taint of paternalism at best and of condoning resource robbery at worst.
For all that the study itself in Environmental Research Letters is far more nuanced all the way through, suggesting deep appreciation by the researchers for the chancy dynamics and uncertain results if foreigners redo a largely hapless nation’s farm lands. The authors openly fear that land-grabbing can as easily bring worse poverty and starvation to people in the region, some of them displaced farmers, and might not produce much that’s edible for the rest of the world either.
So after yours truly came across the news release, and then ran down the study behind it and took a look, the obvious tracker-centric question arose: how did media use this release, if at all? How many writers looked into the paper and into the history of agricultural change, looking looked past that ‘landgrabbing” term? After all, India (starting when it was really poor) and many other nations have transformed their food production via national effort with little dependence on foreign help. At heart the analysis merely says that modern agricultural methods increase yields. No surprise there. It then looked at what would happen to cultivated lands already being landgrabbed assumoing only that they are tilled better and mainly to feed people including the locals. The paper also notes that an underlying principle is to increase yields on existing farm lands and not by ploughing over nature preserves and the like.
It turns out that the study got little media coverage. Here is what a search turned up.
- Environmental Research Web – Liz Kalaugher: Could ‘land grabs’ feed more mouths? ; This isn’t mainstream journalism so much as a savvy newsletter for activists. It takes the right angle from the top – with clear dislike for what so-called landgrabing often produces. The question is: what if this land were treated right? Kalaugher contacted nobody outside the study – but she corresponded with one of the study’s authors.
- New Scientist – Fred Pearce: Ethical land-grabbing could feed 100 million people ; Ditto; right tone from the top. And Pearce, know best for hard hitting big-picture essays, does this one news style. He quotes an expert in land use as saying “Smallholders still feed most of the world… researchers should help them overcome the challenges that prevent them from doing it better.”
- The Guardian – Damian Carrington: Land taken over by foreign investors could feed 500m people, study finds / Land grabbing i Africa and Asia for export and biofuel crops is keeping populations malnourished and hungry ; Pretty good, but the 500m people contrasts to the 100m in Pearce’s piece and is misleading. That is about how much total food the land could produce – but the incremental boost over what traditional ag already does is much less.
Any deep journalistic look at this topic could do far more – particularly by reviewing the many ways that farming practices worldwide can be improved by many means short of outright purchase or similar takeover of the land by outsiders.