By Silvia Aloisi
ROME (Reuters) - A top U.N. inter-governmental body on food security has failed to endorse a code of conduct on foreign land investments, in a blow to efforts to draft international guidelines to regulate so-called "land grabs".
Responding to concerns about countries like China, South Korea and Gulf Arab states buying large swathes of land in Africa and Asia to secure their food supplies, the World Bank and U.N. agencies drew up seven principles for "responsible agricultural investment."
But a meeting of the U.N. Committee on Food Security (CFS), which dragged on into the early hours of Friday, failed to endorse those principles, simply "taking note" of them, participants told Reuters.
"It's terribly disappointing," said Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food.
"We are not moving swiftly enough to find an effective answer to the problems posed by land investments."
The principles advocated by the World Bank, and sponsored by Japan, say existing rights to land should be respected, investment should not jeopardise food security, and all those materially affected should be consulted.
RULE OF LAW
Investments should respect the rule of law, reflect industry best practices and be viable economically. They should be transparent and monitored, and they should also be sustainable from both a social and environmental point of view.
However, China, Egypt and South Africa, as well as farmers' groups, opposed endorsing those principles at the CFS meeting in Rome, complaining about lack of consultation and involvement in the process. That left the code of conduct in a "no man's land", De Schutter said.
The principles were drawn up after a spike in food prices to record levels in 2007-08 sparked a wave of land deals, as food-importing countries and major agricultural businesses sought to increase their food supplies and protect themselves from price volatility.
Some 45 million hectares worth of large scale farmland deals -- roughly the size of Sweden and a tenfold increase from previous years -- were announced in 2009, the World Bank said in a report released last month.
Aid groups say that such deals come at the expense of small farmers in African and Asian countries and could end up worsening poverty and hunger in less developed countries.
With the World Bank principles sidelined by the CFS, the focus now shifts to a set of as yet ill-defined voluntary guidelines which have been in the works since 2008.
A draft of the guidelines, the result of consultations between the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), member states and civil society groups, is due to be submitted to the CFS in a year's time.
In any case, both the World Bank principles and the FAO's voluntary guidelines are non-binding.
Critics say any new rules risk being too little, too late as land deals continue unabated and could even increase on the back of the recent rise in cereals prices due to drought in Russia and flooding in Pakistan.
In the past two weeks alone, an Egyptian private equity firm has announced plans to invest $40 million to grow crops in Sudan and the head of Qatar's national food security programmes told Reuters talks were under way to buy land in Ukraine and Argentina for cereals' production.
"One of the reasons why there was this rush towards overseas investments is that governments and the private sector lost faith in international markets as a reliable source of food supply," said David Hallam of FAO's trade and market division.
"The rise in the global price of wheat and maize in the past few weeks and the export bans by Russia and Ukraine have only reinforced those fears."
Aid groups said the fact that governments, international organisations and civil society groups were all involved in the CFS talks was positive but denounced a general lack of urgency."We are concerned that smallholder farmers are still at risk from land grabs and that governments are dragging their feet," said Duncan Pruett, policy adviser on land at Oxfam.