Land deals meant to improve food security may actually threaten local efforts

lush rice fields in tropical countryside

CSU’s Nathan Mueller said it’s obvious from the team’s research that investors are targeting places with better-than-average green water availability.

This article was adapted from a story by Jessica Sieff, assistant director for media relations at the University of Notre Dame

Following a global food crisis during the early 2000s, multinational corporations purchased more than 220 million acres of land in middle-income and developing countries to increase crop production and contribute to the world’s food supply. A new study co-authored by a researcher at Colorado State University found that such large-scale land acquisitions by foreign investors resulted in little to no benefit to local food security, even when they increased crop production.

The study, “Impact of transnational land acquisitions on local food security and dietary diversity,” was published Jan. 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research was led by Marc Müller, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at the University of Notre Dame.

Nathan Mueller, assistant professor at Colorado State University, was a co-author on the study, which combined satellite imagery with agricultural surveys and household diet datasets for 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.

Mueller’s work focused on how the land was targeted for acquisitions, including whether investors were buying the best available land.

“It’s obvious from our research that the investors we studied are targeting places with better-than-average green water availability, which means there is more naturally available soil moisture for crop production,” he said.

Notre Dame’s Müller said these land deals have taken place for the last two decades on a “massive” scale. “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,” he said.

“Our goal was to use empirical data to sort out whether or not large-scale land acquisitions have improved food security,” he said. “But what we found was that there was either no impact or a negative impact. There was no positive impact.”

Purchases of land have consequences

Proponents view the multinational companies that purchased the land as better positioned to improve production and increase crop yields. But those who oppose the arrangements 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 or violence in those regions.

researcher Nathan Mueller under a blue sky with clouds
Nathan Mueller is a researcher in the Warner College of Natural Resources and College of Agricultural Sciences. Photo: CSU Photography

The team analyzed land deals across Latin America, eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. By combining satellite imagery, researchers could see whether crop lands expanded or intensified.

Using data agriculture surveys, the researchers identified 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 those that can also be used for biofuel, such as palm oil and sugar cane.

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 – countries 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.

In sub-Saharan Africa, when investors acquired land in drier regions, they were mostly in locations with better-than-average irrigation structures according to CSU’s Mueller.

“Investors were targeting areas that already had expensive irrigation infrastructure, or systems that they could expand on,” he said.

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 Müller. “But these types of crops are not nutrient dense, so it’s not great in terms of food security. The data from the household surveys we studied showed a consistent decrease in diet diversity after the deals took place.”

Mueller added that with foreign investors buying up areas about the size of Venezuela in the past two decades, it is an indication of the increasing value and inevitable scarcity of land around the world.

“When we see this valuable land being acquired in areas where populations are poor and marginalized, the potential for negative impacts is high,” he said.

First study in a series on land acquisitions

The study is the first in a series the research team will produce, with future studies looking at the impact of large-scale land acquisitions in relation to water, energy and environment.

Mueller is an assistant professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability and the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU.

Co-authors of the study include Gopal Penny, postdoctoral researcher 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; and Paolo D’Odorico and Lorenzo Rosa at the University of California, Berkeley.

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