Saturday, August 14, 2010

Who Controls the Farm?

In one of his recent No Reservations episodes on the Travel Channel, Anthony Bourdain took us to Dubai.  Many shows, including 60 Minutes in 2007, marvel at how this shiekdom "transformed itself from a spit of sand about the size of Rhode Island into the Singapore of the Middle East."   This post is not necessarily about Dubai, but also about Ethiopian land and agriculture policies. 

Dubai is an example of  capitalistic opulence, but I won't go deep into detail about that, other than question why a community in the desert needs an indoor ski resort.

There is also plenty of food in Dubai, including fresh fruits and vegetables. Where does that produce come from?  As a community smack in the desert, Dubai produces very little of its own food, although there are some innovative projects where some food is grown in vertical farms using desalinated and treated seawater.

Which brings us to a thought-provoking show that aired on the PBS NewsHour in April entitled Ethiopia's Abundant Farming Investments Leave Many Still Hungry. The Ethiopian government is allowing massive investment in some of the country's agricultural lands, but very little of the food stays in the country.  The produce is intended for supermarkets in cities like Dubai and Riyadh.  Here is a blurb from Bloomberg news service back in December 2009.   
Large-scale export-oriented plantations may keep farmers from accessing productive resources in countries such as Ethiopia, where 13.7 million people depend on foreign food aid, according to a June report by Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food. It called for ensuring that revenue from land contracts be “sufficient to procure food in volumes equivalent to those which are produced for exports.”
Using productive land to grow crops for export.  Where have we heard this before?  Is this any different than Europeans taking some of the best land in Ghana to grow cocoa?  Probably not.  There is one slight difference.  In Ethiopia, companies are growing actual food, and very little of that stays at home.  

That's not to say that capital investments in farming are all that bad.  In fact, they are beneficial in creating a local food system.  Read more about Saudi investment in Ethiopian farm sector.  But perhaps the concept of social responsibility in investment is lost somewhere.  Can the big farms set aside a portion of the food for local consumption?  Better yet, can they allow local people to use some of their land to grow food for consumption in Ethiopia?

Rather than go on and on about this, I'd like to share the video from the PBS NewsHour.  

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