Land grabbing a growing concern as climate change threatens food production

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Farmland in Malahide, Ontario. Image: Peter Giesbrecht/Wikimedia Commons

The industrialized model of agriculture too often followed in Canada is placing our food security and sovereignty in peril. A century of ever-increasing farm size and land concentration is now leading us into a new era of speculation on farmland -- one where private companies not traditionally involved in agriculture are acquiring tracks of land. It is a worrisome international trend, particularly when one considers the impact climate change will have on food production.

While it's heartening to know that many people are increasingly questioning what we eat, how we grow it, the use of artificial pesticides and herbicides, the increase in genetically modified organisms, and more, there is another huge factor that needs to be addressed.

Who owns the land on which our food is being grown and how does that influence food quality and farming practices? This is an increasingly pressing issue given the impact climate change is having on food production.

Since 2008, the term "land grabbing" has become increasingly common. A number of groups have been monitoring how corporations and private investors are acquiring land around the globe -- and in many cases, working to create new colonial relationships with existing communities. In developing nations, land grabbing often affects women the most. Some of these acquisitions are steeped in violence, while others are undertaken more traditionally and more quietly. But in the end, the land ownership passes from small farmers and their communities to private investors and corporations.

While the term "land grabbing" has been applied largely to lands taken over in the Global South, increasingly it is also being used to identify the taking over of agricultural lands in the north -- and this includes North America as well as the European Union.

Here in Canada, at a time when this generation of farmers are ready to retire, and given the history of land concentration, continued loss of family farms, and increasing pressures on agricultural land from speculative investors, land grabbing should be central to any agricultural policy.

As I wrote in an article published in 2017:

"In the last 55 years, Canada has lost 63 per cent of its individual farms, though the total amount of farmland has remained close to the same. More than half of the remaining farms are run by a farmer over the age of 55; with almost half of the country's farmland expected to change hands in the next 15 years, rural Canada is in the midst of a profound transformation."

Minimal land protection in Canada

But despite increasing concern over food production issues, the federal government has done little to protect farmland from speculation, noting that sale of land and limits on those sales to foreign buyers or corporations is largely a provincial issue. A Library of Parliament background report published in 2015 provides an overview of land ownership law by province, and uses the term land grabbing, but also notes the paucity of information on the extent of the problem in Canada. And where land grabbing has been identified, it is often Canadian companies doing the grabbing and not foreign investors -- at least so far. For example, the provincial government of Prince Edward Island is now investigating some land sales and moving to close loopholes in legislation to increase transparency.

Meanwhile, the federal government has done little to protect the sustainability, income or land base of family farm operations using policies that are within its jurisdiction. My previous columns have detailed the loss of the Canadian Wheat Board and other key issues. From where I sit, it appears that family farmers have essentially been abandoned to market forces. That means the public and country's interest are being seriously neglected.

So far the detail on land grabbing in Canada is sparse. It is known that some public sector pension funds are speculating here in Canada as well as in other countries. A story from Farmland Grab on PSP Investments, which manages the pension funds for several organizations (the Ontario Teachers Federation, for example) reports the recent acquisition of yet more land in Australia. It's interesting to note that members of the PSP board of directors have been affiliated with other boards as diverse as insurance companies, banks, IT companies, universities, right through to the Red Cross, UNESCO, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

There are also two reports published in 2015 and 2016 that help to outline the issue of land speculation and investments in Canada: Losing our Grip, published by the National Farmers Union and Who is buying the farm? published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Land grabbing a global practice

Meanwhile, a report commissioned by the European Parliament's Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development in 2015 also noted a significant rise in land grabbing in the EU. The report notes that it's being undertaken by "diverse actors including banking groups, pension, and insurance funds, who are controlling an ever-increasing share of European farmland." It also states that the practice imperils European food security and food sovereignty.

There are also stories such as this one, which implicate the Dutch Development Bank in land grabbing via its funding of seven projects involved in land grabbing in Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Honduras, Panama, and Guatemala.

Land grabbing is growing internationally and no country appears to be avoiding its impact.

With the looming concern over food production and climate change, it is an issue that needs to be front and centre. After all, we can talk about sustainability and family farms and reducing agriculture's carbon footprint all we want. But if communities and family farmers are increasingly losing access to land, farmers' ability to produce food sustainably, government's ability to implement policies that encourage sustainably, and the public's advocacy for healthier food policies will all be compromised.

To help keep your eye on the issue, here is a list of useful resources on land grabbing.

Have a peek. It is boggling.

  • Land Matrix is an independent land-monitoring initiative that collects data on large-scale land acquisitions
  • farmlandgrab.org contains daily news reports about the global rush to buy up or lease farmland
  • International Land Coalition is a global alliance of organizations working together to promote secure and equitable access to land for rural people
  • IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) offers news and publications on land acquisitions and rights

I leave you with these realistic and hopeful reflections  published by Grain and Common Dreams:

"Big food and agribusiness companies are desperate to portray themselves as part of the solution. But there is no way to reconcile what's needed to heal our planet with their unflinching commitment to growth…Yet, if we look beyond the public relations of Big Food and Ag we will see that there are plenty of real solutions that can feed the planet perfectly well. All kinds of alternatives are flourishing, especially in the global South, where small farmers and local food systems still supply up to 80% of the food people eat. The industrial food system only exists today because of the support it gets from governments which march in lockstep with corporate lobbyists. Public subsidies, trade deals, tax breaks and corporate-friendly regulations are all designed to prop up the big food and agribusiness companies – and facilitate the growing criminalisation of affected communities, land defenders and seed savers resisting these corporations on the ground. We urgently need to send agribusiness out of the room and demand that governments shift support to small food producers and local markets which would actually save us from planetary collapse…."

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.

Image: Peter Giesbrecht/Wikimedia Commons

Editor's note, November 28, 2019: This column was updated to add information about Prince Edward Island's move to increase transparency in land purchases in the province.

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