Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at Notre Dame, Marc Muller, has dropped a bombshell on the menace of land acquisitions by multinational companies.
He has found land grabbing to be directly harmful to local food security and livelihoods.
Notre Dame is however, a leading American research university that offers undergraduate, professional, and graduate students a chance to pursue their academic endeavors in a unique scholarly community.
Enriched by Catholic intellectual and cultural traditions, it is a place that throughout its history has sought to bring knowledge into service of justice. This is a lofty ideal, but for generations the challenge and the opportunity of a Notre Dame education has attracted bold minds from all walks of life to go here and engage in rigorous inquiry.
A report by Global Agriculture describes the phenomena as when: “These international investors, as well as the public, semi-public or private sellers, often operate in legal grey areas and in a no man’s land between traditional land rights and modern forms of property.
“In many cases of land grabbing, one could speak of a land reform from above, or of the establishment of new colonial relationships imposed by the private sector.”
This begun following a global food crisis in the early 2000s – when foreign investors bought over 220 million acres of land, in low to middle income countries (LMIC). This concept was labelled as strategy to increase crop production and contribute to the global food supply, but it brought a host of obstacles and issues.
Muller, the lead author of the study says “these land deals have been happening for the last two decades on a massive scale.
“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.”
Muller holds a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from University of California, Berkeley, 2015;M.Sc. Civil Engineering, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, 2009; B.S. Civil Engineering, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, 2007; and B.S. Material Science and Engineering, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, 2006.
His areas of interest are: Climate change, water resources and conflict; Cross-boundary water collaboration; Migration, trade and the resilience of coupled human-water systems; Attribution of rapid hydrologic change in data-scarce regions; Remote sensing and stochastic ecohydrology; Socio-environmental data and information science; Sociohydrology; and Large scale land acquisitions
The study used a mix of satellite imagery and agricultural surveys, as well as household dietary datasets. The team examined 160 large-scale land acquisitions across four continents between 2005 and 2015. It is the first comprehensive global analysis of the impact of this kind of land acquisition.
There are two competing arguments when it comes to land acquisitions.
Supporters describe the multinational companies that purchased the land as better positioned to improve production and increase crop yields. But those who oppose land-grabbing say that the acquisitions siphon natural resources, lead to displacement of local farm workers and can have a negative impact on local residents.
These impacts can look like livelihood losses, social instability and even violence in those regions – which is what comes of multinational companies operating in a grey zone.
Muller and his team focused on land deals across Latin America, eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. By combining satellite imagery, researchers could see whether crop lands expanded and often intensified.
He further commented: “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.”
In Latin America and Eastern Europe, investors purchased land in intensified agricultural areas. These are middle-income countries 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’’, says 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.”