Land deals meant to improve food security may have hurt

January 19, 2021

Large-scale land acquisitions by foreign investors, intended to improve global food security, had little to no benefit, increasing crop production in some areas while simultaneously threatening local food security in others, according to researchers who studied their effects.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and led by the University of Notre Dame, combined satellite imagery with agricultural surveys as well as household dietary datasets of 160 large-scale land acquisitions across four continents between 2005 and 2015. It is the first comprehensive global analysis of the impact of the land acquisitions of its kind.

"These land deals have been happening for the last two decades on a massive scale," said Marc Muller, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at Notre Dame and lead author of the study. "Our goal was to use empirical data to sort out whether or not large-scale land acquisitions have improved food security by using empirical data. But what we found was that there was either no impact or a negative impact. There was no positive impact."

Following a global food crisis during the early 2000s, foreign investors purchased more than 220 million acres of land in middle-income and developing countries, according to the study's estimates, to increase crop production and contribute to the global food supply.

"In many countries throughout the world land is being commodified, so it is becoming easier to buy and sell land. Those, and rising food prices, were drivers for these companies," Muller said.

There are two competing arguments when it comes to land acquisitions. Proponents view the multinational companies that purchased the land as better positioned to improve production and increase crop yields. But those who oppose argue that the acquisitions encroach on natural resources, lead to displacement of local farm workers and can have a negative impact on local residents -- including giving rise to livelihood losses, social instability and/or violence in those regions.

While scientists have analyzed these types of acquisitions using modeling studies, and others have looked at specific situations as a result of the land deals through case studies, Muller said this is the first global analysis of this scale.

Muller and his team analyzed land deals across Latin America, eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. By combining satellite imagery, researchers could see whether crop lands expanded and/or intensified. "We also used data from agriculture surveys to identify what types of crops had been planted in and around those lands prior to the acquisition compared to after, to account for potential transitions from local crops to export-bound crops, and crops that can also be used for biofuel," such as palm oil and sugar cane, Muller said.

According to the study, trends differed depending on the region -- and in some cases the acquisitions had a negative effect on household diets.

In Latin America and eastern Europe -- where countries are considered middle-income -- investors purchased land in intensified agricultural areas, where crops were already export-bound and local residents already consumed food from global markets. "So, in that sense, these land deals didn't really change much," said Muller. "They didn't increase crop production and they didn't cause more damage to local food insecurity than what was already taking place. In Africa and Asia, things looked very different."

The research showed that those land acquisitions increased cropland, cultivating previously uncultivated land, and showed a clear transition from local staple crops such as tapioca to export-bound crops such as wheat and flex crops for potential use as biofuel.

"These crops are interesting for investors because if the price of food is low and the price of energy is high, you can then use the crops for energy," said Muller. "But these types of crops are not nutrient dense, so it's not great in terms of food security. As a matter of fact, the data from the household surveys we studied showed a consistent decrease in diet diversity after the deals took place."

The study is the first in a series the research team will produce based on their analysis. Forthcoming studies will look at the impact of large-scale land acquisitions in relation to water, energy and environment.
Muller is an affiliated member of Notre Dame's Environmental Change Initiative and a faculty fellow with the Kellogg Institute for International Studies.

Co-authors of the study include Gopal Penny, also at Notre Dame; Meredith T. Niles at the University of Vermont; Vincent Ricciardi at the University of British Columbia; Davide Danilo Chiarelli and Maria Cristina Rulli at the Polytechnic University of Milan; Kyle Frankel Davis at the University of Delaware; Jampel Dell'Angelo at the University of Amsterdam; Paolo D'Odorico and Lorenzo Rosa at the University of California, Berkeley; and Nathan D. Mueller at Colorado State University.

The National Science Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development and the Mava Foundation funded the study.

University of Notre Dame

Related Areas Articles from Brightsurf:

Protected areas help waterbirds adapt to climate change
Climate change pushes species distribution areas northward. However, the expansion of species ranges is not self-evident due to e.g. habitat degradation and unsustainable harvesting caused by human activities.

More than 90% of protected areas are disconnected
Ongoing land clearing for agriculture, mining and urbanisation is isolating and disconnecting Earth's protected natural areas from each other, a new study shows.

Protected areas can 'double' imperilled species populations
A University of Queensland-led research team has revealed that many endangered mammal species are dependent on protected areas, and would likely vanish without them.

Protected areas worldwide at risk of invasive species
Protected areas across the globe are effectively keeping invasive animals at bay, but the large majority of them are at risk of invasions, finds a involving UCL and led by the Chinese Academy of Science, in a study published in Nature Communications.

Renewable energy developments threaten biodiverse areas
More than 2000 renewable energy facilities are built in areas of environmental significance and threaten the natural habitats of plant and animal species across the globe.

Caribbean sharks in need of large marine protected areas
Governments must provide larger spatial protections in the Greater Caribbean for threatened, highly migratory species such as sharks, is the call from a diverse group of marine scientists including Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) PhD Candidate, Oliver Shipley.

Innovation is widespread in rural areas, not just cities
Conventional measures of innovation suggest that only big cities foster new ideas, but a more comprehensive measure developed at Penn State shows that innovation is widespread even in rural places not typically thought of as innovative.

For some urban areas, a warming climate is only half the threat
A new study from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies projects that the growth of urban areas in the coming decades will trigger ''extra'' warming due to a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect (UHI).

Green areas in cities promote wellbeing
Green areas in the inner city can directly improve the wellbeing of urban citizens.

Wilderness areas halve extinction risk
The global conservation community has been urged to adopt a specific target to protect the world's remaining wilderness areas to prevent large scale loss of at-risk species.

Read More: Areas News and Areas Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to