November 10, 2013 4:32 pm

Land Grabbing, by Stefano Liberti

A rollicking tour of a globalised food chain poses tough questions about how we handle an increasingly insecure future

Land Grabbing: Journeys in the New Colonialism, by Stefano Liberti, (Verso, RRP£14.99/RRP$24.95)

We live in an era in which 3D printers can spit out meals, and perfectly formed aubergines are grown by the ton in computerised greenhouses in distant lands. Genetics gave us the green revolution and hearty hybrid cereals. The jet age provided the year-round vine-ripened tomato, tasteless though it may be. The internet yielded online merchants with sophisticated logistics hubs that bundle, bag and deliver it to our kitchens with minimum fuss.

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Yet for all the advances in the business of food, the central fact of our age is that we by and large still need land to grow our maize and graze our cattle. Which is why – spying both vulnerability and opportunity – governments and corporations set about buying up acreage around the globe in the wake of the 2007-08 food price crisis.

The resulting, and continuing, land grab is the subject of this book by Stefano Liberti, first published in Italian in 2011 and newly translated into English. It is built around a rollicking global tour of our food chain, from “the most avant-garde industrial farm in all of Africa” (in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley) to Latin America’s “united republic of soya” and the ethanol-obsessed US farm state of Iowa. Along the way we meet landowners, displaced local people and a young Chicago trader who, even as basic commodities such as wheat record daily highs, informs Liberti that he knows where the real money is to be made.

“Right now primary goods are on the boil, but this won’t last forever,” he declares. “It’s a heck of a lot safer and more lucrative to invest in land.”

In the course of his tour, Liberti asks a multitude of difficult questions. Is it right that impoverished African governments are falling over each other to offer land cheaply – and even for free – to Saudi sheikhs and Dutch agronomists who export everything they grow to the rich world? Can anything other than politics justify the boom in US ethanol production? Should we allow five big commodities trading houses to dominate the market in certain grains? Or sharp-suited financial investors to buy up land in search of outsize returns?

Liberti, a journalist for Italian leftwing newspaper Il Manifesto, carries an unmistakable scepticism with him on his tour. His answers to his own questions are unlikely to be the same as those the Financial Times might offer in its editorials. Nevertheless, his questions are worth posing and certainly worth our time.

Sometimes you wish he had dug deeper in his reporting. His visit to the Chicago Board of Trade, for example, feels like it amounts to a press office-arranged tour. And he can also appear at times naive when discussing the workings of business and financial markets.

It would not be fair to dismiss or condemn all investments in agricultural land and the creation modern farms of recent years. Done properly, the influx of capital this sends into developing countries to buy land can create jobs and help feed vulnerable local populations.

There is something stunning simply about the existence of that “avant-garde” farm Liberti finds growing vegetables for export to Europe in an Ethiopia once overwhelmed by famine. And to understand why governments in places such as China might fret over food security you only have to remember, as he points out, that it was protests against food price rises that launched the Arab spring.

There has, however, certainly been at least the whiff of exploitation about some of the deals made by governments and corporations in recent years. And you do not have to be a hoodie-wearing anti-capitalist to raise your eyebrows when Liberti details the control of the big five global commodities trading houses and a small clutch of landowners over the soya fields of Brazil’s Matto Grosso state.

More importantly, this is not an issue that will go away any time soon. According to UN predictions, if fertility rates remain constant globally, the world’s population will top 8bn come 2025 and 11bn come 2050. Moreover, we live in a world where a bulging middle class in emerging economies consumes more and more each year.

 

Technology has so far saved us from a Malthusian disaster. But add the predicted impact of climate change to the mix and there is plenty of reason for governments to be concerned and investors to pay attention. Land grabbing will undoubtedly be with us for many years to come.

Liberti does not spend much time on predictions; his trip covers a messy present. But in what he discovers and documents on his tour of our food chain, there are lessons to be learnt as we prepare for a testing future.

The writer is the FT’s world trade editor

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