April 24, 2011

We export food to import food

Nebiyu Eyassu cuts through the supposed benefits of foreign agricultural investments – so-called land grabs – for a country like Ethiopia. Far from boosting employment and local food security, land grabs are likely to prop up a discredited government and increase hunger.

In recent years there has been an upsurge of agricultural investment in the developing world. Its alleged purpose is to curb the recent global food crisis that has seen serious volatility in the global food market system, causing significant price hikes on key global foods, such as rice.
The price hike in global food has prompted certain countries to seek cheap and fertile farmland beyond their borders in order to guarantee food security for themselves. To achieve this goal such states are encouraging their domestic agro-businesses, tied to their national interests, to invest in countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Madagascar, Tanzania and Argentina, to name a few. Capital invested in far-away farms will produce food cheaply, which will then be exported back to the country where the original capital came from. In this way, the volatility of the international food market can be avoided and national food security achieved.

To accomplish this goal, a key step is to convince developing nations to give up their fertile land to foreign investors. One of the baits designed for the purpose of persuasion is the promise of infrastructure and the sharing of information and technology in agricultural science. The other promise made to host nations is of capital gained from food exports, which can then be reinvested in the country. For underdeveloped countries, who face serious food insecurity, and who are often unable to feed their population, this may sound too good to pass by, particularly if host nation governments are too naive, or are otherwise unconcerned.

In Ethiopia, we have had hundreds of foreign investors grabbing fertile land at incredibly low cost. The scale of the spree is unprecedented. Investors are describing the deal as ‘green gold’. Ethiopia’s untilled land, located in some of the most fertile parts of the country, is now being sold to foreign interests for less than its true worth. Foreign investors are given perks, tax holidays lasting years, and essentially they are exempt from any royalties.

The government of Ethiopia promises this process will mitigate the nation’s chronic food insecurity and allow domestic farmers to gain knowledge from the expertise of foreign agro-business. It also says dollars gained form exporting food can alleviate Ethiopia’s endemic food crises. By this analysis, the premise of the EPRDF government seems to be ‘we export food to import food’. Leaving aside the initial absurdity of the claim, it is necessary to note that the inadequacy of this argument has been amply demonstrated in many developing countries.

Although this issue of land-grabbing by foreign interests is new to Ethiopia, it is no stranger to other parts of the developing world. The history of foreign agro-business intrusion in some Latin American and Caribbean countries is enlightening to say the least. In northeastern Brazil, the region was extensively farmed by foreign agricultural interests for centuries. Unfortunately this region has nothing to show for it now. Today the region is the poorest part of the country with the least food security and one of the highest malnutrition rates in Latin America. Contrary to the promises made by companies that farmed Brazil’s fertile soil, the outcome has been very grim. In his famous book ‘Open Veins of Latin America’, Eduardo Galliano, commenting on Brazil’s northeast, says, ‘Naturally fitted to produce food, it became a place of hunger. Where everything had bloomed exuberantly, the destructive and all dominating plantation left sterile rock, washed out soil, and eroded lands.’ Are Ethiopia’s own fertile lands headed for the same fate? What makes the current foreign agricultural adventure in Ethiopia any different?

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