'Gold with yield': A primer on land-grabbing

Land use, access to agricultural land, and who owns and stewards land, are key issues in food production. But, it is another one of those issues that is complex and takes time to unravel. And it knows no borders -- meaning that the impact of land concentration is happening in the South as well as the North.

In recent years the word "land-grabbing" has entered our lexicon. Land-grabbing is a growing concern because it determines not only access but also how land is used.

"Land-grabbing" is a term coined by GRAIN, a small international non-profit organization founded to support small farmers and community-controlled food systems.

The definition of land-grabbing varies somewhat. Essentially, though, it describes the buying of farmland, either as investments by corporations hoping to cash in as food and land scarcity intensifies or by governments intent on securing food supplies for their populations by buying land near their borders. Land-grabbing often drives up the price of land by creating land insecurity for small, local farmers and concentrates land in the hands of investors who do not actually farm.

Land-grabbing has been on the upsurge in many parts of the world since the global economic crisis in 2008. That downturn and the recognition by industry and some governments that climate change is indeed a reality is fuelling the acquisition of land as security. The practice has been dubbed the "financialization of farmland" by some.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, China, Norway, Russia and Australia are all now using various wealth funds and investments to target farmland in Africa, Asia and Australia.

While a lot of land-grabbing occurs in developing countries, Canada is home to the practice. And evidence of how far-reaching land-grabbing is in Canada is growing. In 2015 the National Farmers Union updated a policy research paper entitled Losing our Grip. This paper documents lax provincial farmland ownership laws, and the concentration of prime agricultural land into the hands of corporate investors. For example, through the use of Limited Partnerships, Farmland Investment Funds, and Pension Funds, including the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, investors are speculating on and concentrating farmland. And, some Canadian public pension fund managers grab land in other countries as well.

While there is quite a bit of information and several organizations monitoring land-grabbing internationally, it is a lot harder to find information about what is going on in Canada. In fact, there is very little research into or tracking of land ownership and transfers in Canada.

But, scratching the surface of this issue indicates that we are sitting on factors that might well soon come together to create the perfect storm.

The recipe combines the loss of prime agricultural land through sprawl around major urban centres, retiring farmers with huge tracts of land unaffordable to most except the richest investors, the consolidation of agri-business corporations (such as the merger between Monsanto and Bayer) and corporate control over seed, pesticides, fertilizers and farm equipment, and climate change. Now, add to the mix the grabbing of land for pure speculation and the impact on food security and food sovereignty is much clearer. Some investors call the purchase of farmland "gold with yield."

Farm policy in Canada since the 1980s has encouraged the capitalization of farms -- with policies that have actively promoted farms to get bigger, borrow more, and try to reach economies of scale despite ever-increasing operating costs. In the process, many family farms have gone under during the last few decades, with those surviving often heavily indebted, trying to fend off the "cost-price squeeze."

Today, there are fewer than 205,730 (2011 figures) farms in Canada, only a third of the number operating in 1956 (close to 600,000). Each decade since 1941 has shown dramatic declines in the number of Canadian farms and farmers, as an industrialized model of agriculture encouraged capitalization and continued land concentration. Between 1991 and 2011, Canada lost close to a quarter of its farms and farmers.

Besides the decline in the number of farmers over the last 70 years, the majority of today's farmers are reaching retirement age. The most recent Stats Can numbers show that close to half of Canadian farmers were 55 and over. Fewer than 9 per cent of farm operators were under the age of 40.

Now in 2016, the issue of intergenerational transfer is pressing, with a rural out-migration that is essentially "unsettling" many parts of the Prairie provinces. At the same time, the level of debt for family farmers has continued to climb. The loss of small-scale farmers over decades means that today's retiring farmers operate very large farms. And many are having difficulty finding farmers who are ready to buy. Young people wanting to farm, along with many smaller family farmers, simply cannot borrow enough to buy the huge tracts available. Farmland prices have also increased dramatically since 2008 on the Prairies, due in part to land-grabbing.

Though Statistics Canada does not track land ownership, recent independent research shows that there is a worrisome trend unfolding in rural Canada. A research report published last year in the Journal of Canadian Food Studies maps land ownership in three municipalities in Saskatchewan, and in the process helps to explain the tangled web created to "financialize" farm land and increase land concentration. 

The new federal government has spent the last several months undertaking a review of agricultural policies. The call has gone out for input from Canadians who want to engage and provide advice, voice concern, or call for agricultural policy change. Sometime this fall, the government will gather up all of the input, and hopefully set about making substantial, long overdue change to agricultural policy.

But will the Liberals deal with the issue of land concentration and land-grabbing in Canada? As someone who has researched and witnessed agrarian reforms and similar experiments in Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, and yes, even Saskatchewan... I would say that it is high time for action in Canada. Recent reports tell of the potential for huge problems in the not-too-distant future if we don't tackle land concentration and ownership.

Losing Our Grip includes several recommendations related to stewardship, intergenerational transfer and sustainability, and encourages restrictions on land ownership laws across the country. Among the recommendations is the call for a national, consistent land ownership policy to be implemented in each province, one that restricts the ownership of farmland to individuals, co-operatives, and incorporated farming operations within the province. Foreign ownership of land should not be allowed. Nor should absentee landlords.

The recommendations also include an income assurance program for beginning farmers, and a retirement savings program or pension plan specifically designed for farmers so that they do not need to depend on the sale of their land to fund their retirement.

There is a lot more grist in the Losing Our Grip report. My hope is that some of these recommendations find their way into any new agricultural policy.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Amy Templeman/flickr

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