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With the global population forecast to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, the question of developing effective means of matching the food supply with demand has been on the agenda prior to the Green Revolution. The inability of conventional agriculture to achieve the necessary 70-100% increase in productivity to feed the world by 2050 is worrisome. Rising to the challenge, scientists and agricultural giants have turned their attention to soil- the most complex ecosystem on earth- and its humble microbes to boost crop yields. 

There are around 50 billion microbes in a spoonful of soil. The soil microbiome, consisting largely of bacteria and fungi, greatly influences plants by forming associations with their roots. The zone of soil which fosters interactions between microorganisms and plant roots is known as  the rhizosphere. Here, symbiotic relationships, crucial to the health of crops, are formed.

In 1888 Martinus Beijerinck isolated a type of symbiotic bacteria called rhizobium, which has been implemented into farming practices to boost crop yields as a natural nitrogen fertiliser ever since. Rhizobium colonises roots of legumes, forming characteristic nodules, and turns nitrogen from the air into a ‘bioavailable’ (easy for plants to absorb) form in the ground – a process known as nitrogen fixation. 

Microbes in the soil help to boost crop yields in a variety of ways. They are critical to nutrient cycling, particularly of phosphate, which is essential to crops and cannot be manufactured. There are bacteria which produce antibiotics that defend plants from harmful bacteria and some directly stimulate growth through phytohormones. Others induce epigenetic changes, meaning that they alter the physiology of a plant to the point of modifying its gene expression, making plants more productive and resilient to changes. 

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Microbes also provide plenty of indirect support. For example, they improve water retention by aggregating into sticky colonies called biofilms, which coat soil particles and trap the moisture within while simultaneously creating a fluffy, optimally-structured soil with tiny air pockets.  

Even more fascinating are fungi, notably a specific type called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF). AMF permeate the roots and the soil with long finger-like projections called hyphae, which act as extensions of the host’s roots, bringing in nutrients. Additionally, through this network of hyphae, collectively called mycelium, fungi protect crops against pathogens, reduce the impact of pollutants and offer greater resistance to environmental changes such as water stress, soil temperature, pH and more. In productive soil, the mycorrhizal mycelium is very developed and serves as a means of sophisticated communication and signalling between plants, like informing about any deficiencies in an area or sending warning signs of pest attacks. It can even increase plants’ resistance to pests. More than 90% of plants form some connections with AMF.  Inconspicuous AMF, themselves, can grow to enormous lengths. The largest organism on Earth is Armillaria ostoyae, a fungus spread over nearly 2 400 acres across the Malheur National Forest, US. 

As mentioned, such relationships of the rhizosphere are symbiotic, or based on reciprocity, meaning plants serve friendly microbes just as much in return. As Ben Brown, a researcher from Berkeley’s Lab working on the AR1K Smart Farm project, puts it, ‘they do an exceptional job of farming their microbiomes’, referencing how plants exude compounds to kill off harmful bacteria and provide carbohydrates for their allies to feed on. It is not far-fetched to compare the rhizosphere microbiome, in its role and importance, to that of a human gut microbiome. In fact, scientists involved in the project dubbed their microbial mixtures ‘soil probiotic’. 

In the early 1950s, Norman Borlaug created a high-yielding strain of wheat by genetically modifying the plant. This invention spurred experts and farmers to begin the Green Revolution, a large-scale effort to increase food production and prevent devastating famines in the 20th century. The use of new genetically modified (GM) crop varieties, requiring more nutrient and irrigation input, became the catalyst for the worldwide spread of intensive conventional agriculture. This meant extensive use of chemical fertilisers, a significant increase in water demand and the growth of monoculture cultivation. 

In Asia, the Green Revolution increased yields from 310 million in 1970 to 650 million tons by 1995. Despite a 60% growth in population over the same time period, wheat and rice became cheaper, caloric availability per person increased nearly 30%, and only an additional 4% of farmland was used. Because of these remarkable results, the predicted famine was prevented and in 1970, Dr. Borlaug was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. 

The momentary success of the Green Revolution is indisputable, but its legacy experienced today- land degradation, leaching and eutrophication, greenhouse gas emissions, and genetic diversity loss- impugn the idea of agricultural intensification as a viable solution.  

One of the problems with chemical fertilisers is that it replaces the soil microbes. When plants are simply given what they need, there is no incentive for them to form or maintain relationships with soil life, and so the network of connections disintegrates. Moreover, the cropping practices alone, for example tillage, impact the rhizosphere interactions. In the absence of microbes, crops rely solely on human imitation of their services, as it is done in industrial farming, which soon ceases to be economically or environmentally viable. Therefore, some of the world’s agricultural giants, like Monsanto and Novozymes, are investing in large-scale analyses of soil samples and testing out different mixtures of microbes to be used as seed coatings or soil amendments. As the aforementioned rhizobium, every microbe in the soil has a specific function. Hence scientists are trying out different combinations of microbes to find the optimum blend. In an interview for the Scientific American, these scientists expressed no intention of using GM organisms, but ones derived straight from soil. As a collective effort, 500 000 plots of US farmland were sown with seeds coated in 2 000 different mixtures of microbes in field trials unprecedented in scope. Increased crop yields were successfully obtained, and the companies predict that 50% of US farmland will be using some form of soil microbial crop aid by 2025. 

Healthy soils support healthy crops and produce high levels of soil organic matter (SOM) which stores carbon. Intensive industrial farming practices strip the land off of this organic matter. The buildup of SOM is very important, particularly at the time of global climate crisis, because it prevents carbon from being released into the atmosphere by keeping it in the soil instead. This and other forms of ‘carbon farming’, a recent article states, should be incentivised to decelerate global warming.

In summary, soil microbes not only boost crop yields but offer more resilience to the impacts of climate change. Hence, in answering the question of the future of posterity, the science points down to the soil with emphasis on ecological intensification. 

When global grain prices inflated expeditiously between 2007 and 2008, transnational agricultural land deals surged. With its low-cost labour and cheap and relatively less-exploited land, Sub-saharan Africa and parts of Asia became the most targeted investment destination for foreign private and state-owned companies. 

Driven by a combination of various factors, droughts and other weather conditions in grain and wheat-producing countries are considered to be at the core of the global agricultural price inflation in 2007-08. As one of the initial inducers, the extended drought in Australia during 2005-06 resulted in its poor wheat harvest season which consequently pushed up the grain’s prices. In a good year, 25 million tonnes of wheat can be harvested in the country; in 2006, just 9.8 million tonnes were harvested.

Major rice-producing countries imposed export bans in early 2008 as they too faced weather-induced shortages and soaring domestic prices. In 2007, during the unseasonal rains in Kerala, India lost nearly USD $57 million worth of crops. To deal with these domestic shortages, all exports of non-Basmati rice were banned in October 2007.

Not too long after, Vietnam, fearing the prospect of a cold front that would have reduced crop production in the Red River Delta, also decided to ban grain sales to international traders. Ukraine and other major cereal-exporting countries also experienced poor harvests and subsequently restricted exports during this period.

Scientists have linked many of these weather conditions, like the prolonged drought in Australia, to global warming; greenhouse gases contribute to desertification and water stress.

Such trade restrictions and bans concerned import-dependent countries like China, the Gulf states and the Philippines as foods like grains became unavailable and banned even at high prices. To secure food supply under such circumstances and in anticipation of rising prices and consumption rates, various wealthy but import-dependent countries like Saudi Arabia and China started buying agricultural land abroad.

More than a decade later, private companies and stock exchange-listed firms- often with indirect government involvement- from countries like Malaysia, the US, the UK, Singapore and Saudi Arabia continue to buy foreign land. Together, these countries account for 37% of the total land deals recorded by The Land Matrix report. The 2016 report from the global land monitoring organisation also found that more than 40% of the land acquisition deals were made by private companies. 

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Motivations

Food Security 

Of the 1204 concluded global transnational land deals recorded by the Land Matrix in 2016, 553 were for growing food crops, indicating that achieving food security is one of the major goals of transnational land acquisition deals.

This is particularly true for countries which have limited natural resources for agricultural production, like Saudi Arabia. In 2009, Al Arabi Mohammed Hamdi, an economic adviser to the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment and Development, expressed his concerns, saying, “when some governments stop exporting rice or wheat, it becomes a real, serious problem for people that don’t have full self-sufficiency”. 

In China and India, a vast amount of arable land has been lost over the past four decades or so. For China, due to water erosion, as well as soil acidification caused by rapid infrastructure development and urbanisation, records since 1997 show that 40% of the total arable land area in China has been degraded. With relatively low levels of precipitation throughout the country, water shortages are another concern for the country. Moreover, as a policy brief by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) mentions, changing diets and the growing demand for agricultural products from its large population mean that countries like China ‘have no other choice but to invest abroad to ensure food security’. 

According to an article by GRAIN, an NGO working to support small farmers, although many countries can afford to import costly agricultural products, many think of foreign farmland acquisition as a long-term strategy to feed their people at a good price and with far greater security. Not only is acquiring land abroad a way to secure themselves from food shortages, but by supporting the investments of domestic private companies and providing conducive policy environments, these countries can strike deals to have access to farmland abroad and be able to export the produce back home. An example of this is the Saudi government halting domestic wheat production in 2016, after which local companies like Almarai and MIDROC acquired lands outside Saudi Arabia and supplied food back to the Saudi market.

Economic Development

Some governments also acquire land to provide farming opportunities for their domestic farmers. This is especially true for highly populated countries with large agricultural sectors, like China and India. In India, the states of Punjab and Andhra Pradesh have already outlined plans to acquire lands in Ghana and Kenya respectively to send local farmers to work there. 

Vietnamese state-owned entities have the highest number of transnational land deals. The Land Matrix report reveals that the Vietnam Rubber Group had over 17 acquisition deals in Cambodia and Laos- the highest recorded – and operate under a complex network of local companies. 

Ultimately, acquiring land and owning agricultural businesses will help create more space for domestic agricultural companies and farmers and bring more business and job opportunities. 

Another benefit of investing in foreign lands is the potential economic returns from agribusiness. A report by GRAIN reveals how agribusiness has become one of the main agendas for Chinese investors as companies like the state-owned China Oil and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO) continue to engage with farming practices and businesses. Companies are integrating both vertically (with suppliers) and horizontally (companies selling similar/ same products) to improve production efficiency, and are expanding their agribusinesses by building infrastructure and entering into public-private partnerships.

Additionally, the economic gains stemming from the increased productivity is one of the main gains of the trade. A study by the IMF says that African farmers achieve just 25% potential yield on the lands that interest large-scale investors, due to weather conditions and other factors. A paper by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) in 2012 found that investors mostly focus on lands where ‘agricultural productivity can be strongly enhanced by technological investments’. These technologies not only help with better crop breeding and cultivation, but also enhance labour supervision through information technology. Large-scale companies are also better than local small-scale production units at dealing with market imperfections  as they have more information and experience in handling issues like limited access to finance, lack of public goods and weak governance.

For the host countries, such transnational investments can help boost local economies by bringing in more jobs and new technology and knowledge in the agricultural sector. Development economists and African governments themselves consider such investments necessary to increase the productivity level of their domestic agriculture sector. Additionally, the increase in food productivity, as host governments believe, will help feed their people and provide jobs, helping to alleviate poverty and food shortage issues that many of them face.

Price Volatility and Cost Mitigation

As far as price hikes and fluctuations, owning foreign lands gets rid of the middleman and saves transactional costs. For example, in importing soybeans from the global market, state-owned firms in China could save 18-24% of their profits if direct purchases from producers could be made. By directly controlling and managing agricultural production abroad, China will have some control when dealing with agricultural price volatility.

Concerns

While foreign land transactions could bring benefits to both the investing and hosting countries, various social and environmental concerns arise.

As large-scale investors focus on getting maximum productivity and resources from the acquired land, pollution, land degradation and resource (freshwater) depletion are becoming matters of concern.

Access to water is what ultimately makes farmland attractive to foreign investors. As large-scale food production requires access to a reliable and abundant source of water for irrigation, many foreign investments in African lands are concentrated near river basins. For example, in Sudan, much of the acquired land is located near the banks of the Blue Nile. Using these farmlands at maximum capacity can put water resources under strain, which could affect the quality of water and bring social unrest. For example, in Uganda, those that have illegally acquired land along the River Rwizi- including investors- have cleared off buffer wetlands that could inevitably impair the microclimate of the area by impacting on the water quality of the wetlands. 

On the one hand, foreign investors bring valuable technology that could increase agricultural production in impoverished countries. On the other hand, there is evidence that these companies, like COFCO, are taking away resources that are essential for the host country’s development. The PNAS study points out that Sudan- having given some of its best farmlands near the Blue Nile to investors, who export food out of the country- has citizens who depend on food aid and subsidies. As GRAIN says, when their lands are sold, farmers and countries lose access to land and thus compromise their sovereignty.

Corruption, as well as illegal and unfair land trade deals are another concern. In 2012, in Ethiopia, about 70 000 indigenous people were forcibly relocated under a “villagization” program; their land had been sold to investors that year. According to Human Rights Watch, the Ethiopian government caused ‘mass displacement to make way for commercial agriculture in the absence of a proper legal process’. 

What could be done?

Transnational agricultural land deals are an opportunity for developing countries to boost their labour market, foster technology transfer and get more foreign investment. However, the fruits of such trade can only be enjoyed under well-structured land governance. As experts suggest, local and indigenous rights should be recognised and the public should be educated on their rights. Environmental regulations should also be enforced to help ensure the well-being of the ecosystem. 

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