Toxic Contagion – Funds, Food and Pharma
by Colin Todhunter
In 2014, the organisation GRAIN revealed that small farms produce most of the world’s food in its report Hungry for land: small farmers feed the world with less than a quarter of all farmland. The report Small-scale Farmers and Peasants Still Feed the World (ETC Group, 2022) confirmed this.
Small farmers produce up to 80% of the food in the non-industrialised countries. However, they are currently squeezed onto less than a quarter of the world’s farmland. The period 1974-2014 saw 140 million hectares – more than all the farmland in China – being taken over for soybean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugar cane plantations.
GRAIN noted that the concentration of fertile agricultural land in fewer and fewer hands is directly related to the increasing number of people going hungry every day. While industrial farms have enormous power, influence and resources, GRAIN’s data showed that small farms almost everywhere outperform big farms in terms of productivity.
In the same year, policy think tank the Oakland Institute released a report stating that the first years of the 21 century will be remembered for a global land rush of nearly unprecedented scale. An estimated 500 million acres, an area eight times the size of Britain, were reported bought or leased across the developing world between 2000 and 2011, often at the expense of local food security and land rights.
Institutional investors, including hedge funds, private equity, pension funds and university endowments, were eager to capitalise on global farmland as a new and highly desirable asset class.
This trend was not confined to buying up agricultural land in low-income countries. Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal argued that there was a new rush for US farmland. One industry leader estimated that $10 billion in institutional capital was looking for access to this land in the US.
Although investors believed that there is roughly $1.8 trillion worth of farmland across the US, of this between $300 billion and $500 billion (2014 figures) is considered to be of “institutional quality” – a combination of factors relating to size, water access, soil quality and location that determine the investment appeal of a property.
In 2014, Mittal said that if action is not taken, then a perfect storm of global and national trends could converge to permanently shift farm ownership from family businesses to institutional investors and other consolidated corporate operations.