A new vision for agriculture
momagri, movement for a world agricultural organization, is a think tank chaired by Christian Pèes.
It brings together, managers from the agricultural world and important people from external perspectives,
such as health, development, strategy and defense. Its objective is to promote regulation
of agricultural markets by creating new evaluation tools, such as economic models and indicators,
and by drawing up proposals for an agricultural and international food policy.
Focus on issues

Is China one of the main countries to blame for land grabbing in Africa?

Philippe Kersting AFRASO,

University Frankfurt, Germany, ICTSD, Bridges

Are claims of Chinese land grabbing in Africa exaggerated by western countries? The ICTSD explores this sensitive issue in the latest edition of its ‘Passerelles’ review. In the excerpt below1, which we recommend reading, the ICTSD questions the actual notion of land grabbing, and underlines the complexity of this debate. Although land acquisition is a reality which can reach extremes, to the point where it can threaten production factors and entire societies, it can also be an opportunity for useful investments in agriculture, as the article points out, namely through the construction of new infrastructures, and the transfer of knowledge and technology.

In Peking, outsourcing agriculture is perceived as inevitable given the country’s structural dysfunctions and its incapacity to secure food self-sufficiency. The figures speak for themselves: 20% of the world population lives in China, yet the country owns only 8% of global farmland. As Pierre Pagesse, the President of Momagri, points out in an article published in the ‘Echos’, China’s goal is to address the challenge of food security, and ‘provide additional food resources, through sovereign and private funds’ on the African continent.

In 2012 the Land Matrix2 database designated China as one of the major investors buying farmland in Africa, however the creators of this database were ultimately compelled to retract this statement. In reality, China only comes in 19th position, far behind European countries, which count among major investors.

This debate on land acquisition is not over yet, and could raise new questions.

momagri Editorial Board

In 2011, the world population is expected to reach over 7 billion. The FAO estimates that by 2050 this figure will rise to 9 billion, and that food production will have to increase 70 percent in order to feed the planet, and this at a time when the natural resources and agricultural potential of many regions around the world are deteriorating. As a result, the attention of international observers is essentially focused on regions where agricultural resources are (truly or supposedly) growing scarcer, and on regions that have (truly or supposedly) preserved their agricultural resources. The main point of focus being China (scarce resources) and Africa (preserved resources). A widely shared belief is that China is out to grab land in Africa, at the risk of jeopardizing food security and political stability on the African continent. But is this really true?

And what is ‘land grabbing’?

Before discussing China’s land acquisition strategy on the African continent, it is important to briefly explain the reasons behind this sudden surge in ‘land grabbing’. The underlying structure and the global rush for arable land, a clear trend since 2007/08, was set in motion by land market liberalization in the 90’s, and was further triggered by the acceleration of the global crisis of capitalism at the turn of the millennium: crises tied to food, economy, finance, environmental issues, climate, energy, and politics, etc. Possible answers to these crises share in common the fact that they all rely on land resources, a reality which encourages the global rush for land. For instance, the food crisis is perceived as the result of underproduction, and so possible solutions mainly involve intensifying the use of land resources. Because of this, environmental, climatic and energy crises have increased the pressure on resources in southern countries, since potential solutions are essentially tied to land resources ('green grab’). On a more general level, these economic and financial crises have focused international attention on land resources, which as they grow scarcer are becoming an attractive investment option for promoters.

Africa: the continent where land is up for grabs?

The debate on land acquisitions is highly controversial. Those defending land acquisitions refer to them as ‘large scale investments in agricultural land’, which according to them will help develop currently ‘underdeveloped’ regions, namely through the construction of new infrastructures, the transfer of knowledge and technology, and investments in farming, etc. Critical observers, on the other hand, qualify these land acquisitions as 'land grabbing' and warn against land dispossession and expulsions, the destruction of small-holder and medium-holder farms, the danger of mass unemployment, control by the agri-food industry, introduction of genetically-modified crops, pollution, degradation of resources, violation of land ownership and rights to food.

Is China among those responsible for land grabbing in Africa? With a population of over 1.3 billion, it is hardly surprising that the impact of China’s food and agricultural policies are perceived as a threat by traditional economies. China has reached its full potential in terms of agriculture, and any further expansion of farmland seems impossible. China is facing a major challenge: 20 percent of the world population lives in China, yet the country owns only 8% of global farmland, and only 6% of annual water reserves. The domestic demand for agricultural commodities has been rising 23 percent/year since the turn of the millennium, due to major social changes, changing diet habits, and the emergence of a middle class representing approx. 20 percent of the population. Meat consumption is up from 15kg/year/per capita in 1980 to 70kg/year/per capita in 2010 (by way of comparison, figures for Germany and the US amount to 88kg an 123kg respectively). Another major factor explaining this explosion in the demand for agricultural resources is China’s fast growing industrial sector. Given the situation, a large number of occidental observers believe that China is incapable of meeting the country’s domestic demand for agricultural resources, and will therefore be forced to develop a policy based on the outsourcing of agriculture and a going-out strategy for land acquisition. A reason why China is one of the countries often blamed for land grabbing.

Data provided by Land Matrix, the most comprehensive open access database currently available on land acquisition activities worldwide (www.landmatrix.org), seemed at first to confirm this trend. When Land Matrix was launched in April 2012, China was designated as one of the major investors buying farmland in Africa.

However, when the database went online, a number of experts challenged this data, namely data relating to Asiatic transactions. This criticism led to changes in the database, painting quite a different picture a year later. Revised information introduced in the database up until April 2013, suggests that land acquisitions in Africa are mainly being operated by European countries rather than Asiatic ones. Data provided by Land Matrix in April 2013, showed that the ten countries investing the most in land acquisition (in million ha) on the African continent were, in ranking order: the United Arab Emirates (1.9), India (1.8), United-Kingdom (1.5), USA (1.4), South Africa (1.3), Italy (0.6), Germany (0.5), Sudan (0.5), Ethiopia (0.4) and Portugal (0.4). China only came in 19th position with 0.16 million ha.

The puzzling question is: why isn’t China among those rushing to buy up African farmland, at a time when the country’s booming population and major socioeconomic changes appear to leave no room for other options? In order to answer this question, one must distinguish between agricultural production geared at feeding humans, and agricultural production geared at feeding animals and/or providing raw materials for industrial production, given the fact China has adopted separate strategies in this respect.

China essentially meets its demand for feed and agricultural resources on the global market, especially since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Agricultural commodities imported by China mainly come from Asia and America. Africa only plays a minor role as far as Chinese agricultural imports and exports are concerned.

As for agricultural production geared at feeding the Chinese population, China’s agronomic potential is largely underestimated by western observers. Up until now, China has been virtually self-sufficient in supplying most of its own food (fruit, legumes, maize, cereal, rice, etc.). Although imports have increased for certain types of products, there is no sign that China is dependent for its food supply, and foreign land acquisition does not appear to be part of China’s strategy for food security.

1 Read the full article by following this link http://ictsd.org/i/agriculture/175042/
2 an international land transaction initiative to monitor farmland acquisitions and leases by foreign investors worldwide.
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Paris, 20 June 2019