Home > Anxiety Neurosis > Frenzy Over Potatoes, Bullets for Rice

Frenzy Over Potatoes, Bullets for Rice

Photo: AP/The Age

Food has gotten more expensive, a fact that has become noticeable every time I make a trip to the local grocery. My overall expenses are low so I can dole out the additional cash without having to make any dietary compromises beyond that nagging question of how last year’s collection of refrigerator staples have suddenly jumped five to ten bucks a week. If my rent was higher or if I had more bills to pay then I might have to stop buying potato chips or, more alarmingly, start rooting around the plastic collection of produce marked “conventional”.

Over the months higher prices have been blamed as consequences of expensive gas and poor crop yields. Concurrently the economy was tanking and while overpaid talking heads took to the airwaves to debate the term “recession” people were losing their homes, their jobs and their ability to provide for their families. The most dramatic result thus far just took place outside Colorado where an estimated 40,000 people descended upon a small farm for gleaning– scraping the leftovers from the earth after a harvest.

Joe and Chris Miller had a good potato crop which covered their bases without fully reaping the fields. In years past they had allowed churches and food banks to comb the paddocks but realizing that winter was approaching and various charities were already running low on supplies they announced an open gleaning on television. They expected 10,000 people but it was obviously going to be a busy day with cars queued for three kilometers before dawn; the area cleared for parking was full before nine in the morning. Eventually they would have to open a second paddock for additional parking and, at the end of the day, Joe Miller says that he gave away 80,000 sacks to be filled.

America remains a rich country but currently people will line up for six hours to get a free bag of groceries in Los Angeles. There seems to be a growing fear shared by developed nations that food is going to be a major issue in the future. Climate change is inevitable and as the seas rise it will no longer be an issue of gas prices but arable land which dictate what you can afford to eat. Perhaps this is why Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, has recently spoken out against neo-colonialism taking place in the third world. Last week a South Korean import/export and “natural resource development” company, Daewoo Logistics, announced that it was negotiating a 99-year lease with the government of Madagascar for a million hectares of land. While the expressed intention of the firm is to cultivate palm oil and corn (presumably for biofuels) it’s worth noting that only 30% of South Korea is arable.

Mohamed Sheikh Nor (AP)/The Daily Green

Large investment groups have begun to walk the corridors of power throughout Africa and Southeast Asia for a new kind of land grab. The Saudi Binladin Group is working to develop in Indonesia to grow basmati rice while the governments of Kuwait and Qatar are exploring their options in Cambodia. Laos has already sold 15% of its farmland to overseas investment and Pakistan has signed off on large plots of land to Abu Dhabi businesses. Perhaps the most blatant act is the Sudanese government who are actively courting offers from wealthy nations for land while still complicit in what could possibly be the word’s greatest current humanitarian catastrophe.

In regards to the Madagascar deal, the government minister in charge of land reform is excited by the prospect of a cash infusion which could go to developing infrastructure. The lease is on hold until an environmental review is conducted and something tells me that there will be no red flags raised to keep money from exchanging hands. Last I heard Madagascar had sold itself to industry long ago, with some of the world’s worst rates of deforestation leading to horrific flooding, extinction of unique species and, of course, deepening poverty.

The poverty will be the issue in the end. As food prices continue to climb small farmers will be priced off their land. Conglomerates will control the best farmland and the yields will be shipped back home to be processed, packaged and displayed in your local supermarket. The value of the food will be higher than people in the third world can afford, so they will watch the container ships leave the dock for richer pastures before going to wait in line for hours in hopes that charity organizations have brought enough rice and beans for a starving population. Eventually the poor will attack these new plantations, probably led by the underpaid workers plowing the fields– maybe one who was punished for taking a small sackful of grain home to his family. The first world will protect its investment the same way it has for raw materials, for oil, for diamonds and for influence. Dictators will be propped up, machine guns will be distributed, people will die. Those who aren’t gunned down will starve or will find themselves indentured on tracts of land once theirs, plucking potatoes from the ground that might one day grow up to be your french fries. Bon Appetit!

For a more intimate story check out Billy Head’s recent article about Madagascar’s impending land sale.
Mohamed Sheikh Nor’s photo is of a food riot in Mogadishu.

  1. j.
    December 1, 2008 at 2:20 am

    The quote from the Oxfam guy in the Guardian thing you link to makes me very skeptical. Or at least the way that quote is used in the thing. The Oxfam guy acknowledges that foreign investment here, is, all else equal, a very good thing. But then he worries about small farmers being displaced by that investment. It’s not clear what, if any, value should be attached to protecting this group per se, or even what this group actually looks like or accomplishes in terms of the basic welfare of the country it belongs to in a given case. The hazy implication seems to be just that these “small farmers” are dudes feeding their countries and that the bad chinese and arab investors are taking this away. Maybe, but it’s not at all clear how this is supposed to work, and there’s certainly no attempt at explaining the mechanics of that story. In particular, many people claim that it’s not a shortage of food, but an inability to pay for it, that constitutes the crisis. In that case, increasing income is what we should care about, and that worry is not obviously the same worry as protecting small farmers.

    More generally, at this point everyone seems to acknowledge that there is a world food crisis, and that its causal factors include (1) a grown and growing middle class in China and India, (2) irrational American and European farm subsidies, and (2.5) biofuel investment. But it’s dishonest and ugly to just imprint that huge tangle of situations with the “colonialism” trope and pretend that you’ve thereby sorted the righteous from the wicked, which is kind of what I think you’re doing here.

  2. blaark
    December 1, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    I thought that Duncan Green’s quote was pretty benign and beside the point; in many countries which are on the auction block small farmers have been unable to feed themselves or anyone else. This can be blamed on various factors such as drought and other ecological issues, inabilities to pay for farming supplies as well as political wrangling and war. I agree with you (at least, I’ve been lead to believe through reading and discussion) that the main cause of hunger is distribution.

    My imagined implications are a leap of faith, or perhaps more specifically non-faith. It’s possible for foreign investment to work without causing problems for the native population and indeed it can be beneficial for everyone involved, but this assumes that these planned agricultural developments are incorporated into what already exists. That would include farming methods which didn’t further degrade the environment (which seems unlikely if, citing the Daewoo purchase, they’ve going after cash crops) and meeting with the people who are intended to work these fields on behalf of the foreign entity to see how a practical but fair labor structure can be put in place. The Guardian article suggests that talks regarding the possible land lease have been closed to public scrutiny– certainly the government might want to keep overly emotional outcries from interfering or intimidating the Korean firm’s representatives, but they might also be attempting to greenlight something they know will cause legitimate concern amongst the people who will be most affected. Large corporate investment in the third world has a pretty bad track record.

    Even thinking of this as investment might be a little too giving; it’s been suggested that these land purchases are more about securing stable food/cash crop production for the foreign countries. Again citing Daewoo, if what is generated in Madagascar is intended for South Korean’s industries and not the food market (commodities exchange or to be sold to overseas supermarkets and food producers) the easiest and most cost effective thing would be to wall off their land tract and modernize the farming practices to minimize the necessary local workforce. There’s no guaranteed investment beyond the annual cash for the lease deal which goes to the government to spend. Perhaps the Malagasy people have benevolent leaders who will act in everyone’s best interest but again, Madagascar’s attempts to catch up with the world’s economy has come at great cost already.

    Trickle down effects of large overseas investment such as are seen in China and India do raise the country’s economy but obviously the poor are left poor. Small community/collective investment (ala Grameen Bank) has really high rates of return and empowers people to develop their own communities. These large land sales are obviously not going to be designed to encourage the poor rural communities of African and Southeast Asia to develop, and it seems likely that at best we’ll see sharecropping as the most beneficial aspect for locals.

    Honestly using neo-colonialism was a lazy decision made when I was yawning and my real concern was that it implies Jacques Diouf actually said it, which he didn’t. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wanted to. If arable land is the new natural resource what prevents these land tracts from becoming the new Nigerian oil fields, or West African Mines, or Indonesian palm plantations, or Bolivian water works?

    And this is all very dry and on the internet which misses an important point altogether. Regardless of theories and ideology people will be and should be scared that they’re being sold overseas. The onus is on the purchasing company to convince everyone this is going to be good for everybody, but are we supposed to listen to their PR firm? I don’t think there’s any righteousness in the equation but I do think there’s a great potential for wicked. By the time you find out whether or not these land deals totally fuck people over it’s too late.

  3. j.
    December 2, 2008 at 1:56 am

    “I thought that Duncan Green’s quote was pretty benign and beside the point; in many countries which are on the auction block small farmers have been unable to feed themselves or anyone else. ”

    I guess I still don’t see that the goal of feeding people entails that a substantial fraction of a given country’s food supply come from domestic small farming, rather than, say, increasing that country’s average income.

    “Even thinking of this as investment might be a little too giving; it’s been suggested that these land purchases are more about securing stable food/cash crop production for the foreign countries.”

    Again, if the effect is to increase people’s ability to obtain food on the world market, it’s not clear why we should care where the foreign investors see their particular markets.

    “Trickle down effects of large overseas investment such as are seen in China and India do raise the country’s economy but obviously the poor are left poor.”

    Very abstractly, if, say, a company opens a factory, it pays people to supply raw materials, build the factory, work there, clean stuff, etc., and those people in turn pay other people for other stuff, who in turn pay other people for other stuff. That’s not a “trickle down effect,” it’s how market economies work. I think you need to separate that abstract scheme from the particularities of where it can and often does go wrong–for instance, cost externalizing tax-exemptions for investors–because it sometimes sounds like you’re saying that trade is in some sense morally or aesthetically repulsive per se.

  4. blaark
    December 2, 2008 at 10:17 am

    Not having a domestic food supply can cause a lot of problems because then you’re depending on imports which drives the price of food higher which requires a higher standard of living… Not every country that needs to import food has a high enough standard of living so that people can afford it… There’s also vulnerabilities with distribution, particularly in underdeveloped countries where getting food from the docks to the towns can be difficult under good conditions and impossible under bad… From an economic standpoint agriculture has always been a stepping stone from undeveloped to developed; having small communities grow around agricultural hubs which become established centers of trade and then their own industries has been a common feature of economic, cultural and social around the world… Obviously this process has been disrupted in some places and while I don’t think the people should be forced to ride horses and buggies for a century before they can get cell phones I don’t see how they can be expected to go from 0-60 just because the world market has moved on… A more effective method of modernizing has to consider there’s a progression of growth and that World Bank loans or foreign factories, while they do infuse a country with cash, ultimately ruin the local economy and create a more industrialized form of poverty…

    I don’t think that trade is morally reprehensible but obviously I’m more interested in small scale investment, a vested interest and a sense of responsibility… It bothers me that my bank does things with my money that I’ll never know and really have no control over barring closing the account… I’ve thought about it often but the convenience of having my money in a national entity and laziness have made me more hypocritical… Yes, I guess it would be better if I worked out various illustrations of particular instances of foreign investment run amok but I don’t have the time, academic chops and I know there’s many people who can and do it better than I could… So I write about generals and abstracts and maybe hope that if someone is perturbed by it or doesn’t believe it or feels passionate in some way they can dig deeper for themselves…

    Wait, is that a copout? What do you want, I’m in pajamas?

  5. j.
    December 3, 2008 at 12:51 am

    I think we’re just going to continue talking past each other on this sort of thing, so I’m just going to drop it. As an addendum let me just say that I think that sometimes the real battle–that is, the battle that tracks possible outcomes in the actual world–is about getting 15% of good situation rather than 10%, and that difference can have a non-negligible effect on peoples lives.

  6. blaark
    December 3, 2008 at 8:10 am

    Agreed on both points, but when getting 15% of good situation is the best that can happen it still makes my eye twitch…

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