TIAA’s “sustainability reports” can’t paper over the impacts of land grabbing

Tires dumped in a neglected TIAA field in Piatt County. Photo: Doug Hertzler/ActionAid
ActionAid USA | 8 July 2019

TIAA’s “sustainability reports” can’t paper over the impacts of land grabbing

By Doug Hertzler

With a client base surpassing 5 million people, TIAA is one of the largest retirement funds in the world. What most of us don’t realize is that TIAA is also the largest owner of farmland in the world – and it’s getting bigger.
As a TIAA client who grew up in farming, I am angry about this. TIAA knows that taking ownership of farms away from families and communities isn’t going to be popular. That’s why they prepare a “sustainability report” each year to try to soothe any concerns that might emerge among their clients who are unlikely to look too closely at the details.
I recently picked up TIAA’s latest sustainability report with particular interest, because back in March, I had a chance to spend a few weeks in the Midwest and take a closer look at some of TIAA’s farmland. What I learned shed a lot of light on the way the reports are used to deceive TIAA clients.
Fact-Checking TIAA’s Sustainability Narrative
New in this year’s sustainability report was TIAA’s claim that their investments advance the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture. As an organization dedicated to these same goals, we at ActionAid know that TIAA’s investments are doing the exact opposite.
Violating land and food rights
We work with Brazilian partners to support human rights and the right to food in Brazil. And we have seen that TIAA’s accumulation of land in northeast Brazil is fueling land speculation and converting the biodiverse Cerrado region into massive soybean plantations. Communities are losing access to their common forests and pastures, and their waters are drying up and being poisoned by nearby soybean plantations owned by TIAA and other investors. These investments have decimated livelihoods and local food production, threatening the right to food, forcing people to move, and damaging local communities’ cultures and ways of life.
In a new report on their farmland acquisitions, TIAA doesn’t exactly admit that they bought land that had been grabbed from communities using fraudulent titles. Instead they say, “We strive to continuously improve our process for determining land rights, particularly in regions with maturing legal structures.”
In fact they bought land in Brazilian states where corrupt means have been used to convert community commons to private land, and where violence is used to enforce large land owners illegitimate claims. The World Bank is only now implementing a controversial project in the region to address its concern that “tenure informality also extends to medium and large-scale farmers.” There is a risk the World Bank will focus on creating new legal titles to benefit investors like TIAA rather than documenting community land rights.
TIAA also states that they “emphasize the purchase of existing agricultural land rather than converting virgin land or forest into farmland.” This statement covers up the fact that they have often purchased land that was recently converted to farmland by other land grabbers. In some cases TIAA deforested parts of the land after acquiring it.
Fueling false solutions to climate change and malnutrition
What the land is used for is also an issue. TIAA’s main crops in Brazil and the United States are soybeans, corn, and sugarcane. When produced and controlled by large companies, these so-called flex crops can undermine food security rather than strengthening it. These crops feed into the biofuel industry, which environmental analysts recognize as a false solution to climate change and an inhibitor of real solutions.
These crops also go into the production of sweeteners, oils, and feed for animals kept in factory farms. This kind of production fuels unhealthy diets of sugar, fats and cheap meat in the U.S. and other industrial countries.
For decades, the U.S. government has shaped agriculture policy to match its global free trade agenda, promoting large-scale production of commodity crops like corn and soybeans. This approach has economically undercut family-scale and diversified farmers both in the U.S. and abroad in countries like Mexico and Guatemala.
The result, particularly for the last 30-40 years, has been family farms in the U.S. being forced to expand to stay competitive, to the detriment of new entry farmers having access to land, and family farmers in Central America being forced to sell their land and become migrant farm workers to make a living.
Covering up pollution
There’s more. TIAA tells clients that it engages in sustainable agriculture, but its plantations in Brazil and the U.S. are no different from other large-scale industrial agribusiness. Without local management and accountability, the activities of these plantations are environmentally and socially damaging, especially compared to the practices of smaller local farms producing diverse crops and animals.
And when it comes to TIAA’s claims about transparency, reality paints a different picture. Responding to pressure from our campaign, they published a map showing the approximate locations of their fields – but not enough information to easily monitor their practices.
So we turned to paid investors’ services and satellite images to identify the precise boundaries of many of the thousands of acres they own in Illinois. We found out that TIAA owns land under many different names, including Westchester Group, Premiere Farm Properties, IAI USA LLC, and Global Ag Properties.
TIAA also buys the flattest and easiest-to-manage land. However, this does not prevent the chemical fertilizers and pesticides they use from flowing into streams and rivers. It just means chemical runoffs are less noticeable, and other farmers are left with the costliest land to manage sustainably.
TIAA’s heaviest concentration of land is in the watershed of the Sangamon River and its tributaries, which are seriously polluted with silt from fields and nitrate and phosphorus from fertilizers

TIAA’s operators use the same basic practices that are used in almost all large-scale row cropping in Illinois: a simple rotation of corn and soybeans. In addition to chemical fertilizers, this means the use of pesticides like the most prevalent weed-killers such as Atrazine and Roundup, which have been linked to the contamination of drinking water and millions of dollars in damages due to cancer lawsuits. TIAA’s sustainability report only says that most of their operators use “variable rate or equivalent technologies to efficiently apply fertilizer and/or pesticides.”

Champaign County is the home of the University of Illinois and some of the richest farmland in the world. It is also home to Westchester Farm Services, the TIAA subsidiary that manages most of their farmland in the United States.
Tracking down Westchester staff proved quite difficult. Prior to my visit, I asked to meet with them to learn about their farming practices and was informed that everyone had pretty much left for the winter.
I also contacted the TIAA Center for Farmland Research at the University of Illinois, which TIAA highlights in their annual report as benefitting farming communities, but I did not receive any response.
In Champaign I asked a farmer who has been a leader in farm organizations about the research center. He had never heard of it.
“I think the land market research they are doing is probably more for the benefit of investors”, he said.
The very first TIAA field I visited in Champaign County surrounded abandoned farm buildings and a house with siding that was falling off.

Plowed and bare, the land showed no sign of cover crops, windbreaks or any sustainability measures. It was mostly flat, with a severely eroded hillock bordering the neighbor’s field and with a stream flowing through it. This was a pattern that I would see repeated in other counties I visited. In total I found four abandoned houses near TIAA-owned fields – vast expanses of plowed land left bare over the winter, multiple instances of soil erosion.

I did run into a farmer who works land owned by from TIAA, digging a sign post on the edge of the field. “This land used to belong to my family,” he told me. “But a relative sold it to Westchester, and now I lease it back from them.” 
“How do you like farming for TIAA/Westchester?” I asked him.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t care for it,” he told me. He asked that I not use his name and said he wished he didn’t have to deal with a farm manager like Westchester. “They just take profit off the top and tell you to do stuff that you already know how to do.” 
But, he explained, he has to deal with them because he only has 200 acres of land, and that isn’t enough to make a living growing corn in rotation with soybeans.
“Right here in Champaign County is the heart of the battle for the land,” he said. “There is cutthroat competition.”
Another farmer in Champaign told me about wanting to buy a neighboring farm so that his children would have sufficient land to make a living at farming. Instead at the last minute an investor with money from a corporate restaurant chain swooped and offered more than he or the neighbors could afford, leaving him with a bitter taste “I still don’t eat there,” he told me.
With commodity prices being low, young farmers have no chance of owning land when companies like TIAA have billions to invest in farmland, betting on a future when it will be scarce.
It turns out it’s easier to get a loan for equipment than it is to make a down payment on land. The farmer said that it was more feasible for him to make a living by leasing larger equipment that allows him to cover more rented land quickly, that to try to compete with the investors in farmland.
This to plant more land is mostly benefiting big agribusiness, while forcing additional families off the land. Concern about farmers becoming serfs for companies like TIAA, and Bayer-Monsanto is now part of the conversation around kitchen tables and village coffee shops.

Massive farms and shrinking economies
By buying up of farmland and leasing it to large-scale farm machinery operators, TIAA is closing the door on policies that could revive the more diversified farming that used to underlie healthy local economies. In contrast, these soy and corn operations employ very few people and import their goods and services from even fewer suppliers at great distances, effectively killing local economies.
This was evident when I visited TIAA farms in McDonough County. I happened to arrive on the same day that the Western Illinois University campus in the county announced it was laying off 132 faculty and staff, due to a long decline in enrollment, from 11,400 to 7,300 in the last decade.

More than 22% of residents of McDonough County live in poverty, while 16% of the county population suffers from food insecurity. Yet unlike the farms of only a generation ago, TIAA’s soybean and corn farms will do nothing to provide food or jobs for local people. It’s no surprise that young people are abandoning this region, and many of those who remain are not able to afford to go to college.
My visit to McDonough County took me to TIAA’s properties near the town of Blandinsville. Once a bustling village of over 1,500 people, Blandinsville served a large surrounding community of farmers. But the population went into decline with the farm price crisis and the loss of diversified farming in the 1980’s. Today only 600 people live in Blandinsville. One of the many empty storefronts held a sign for an out-of-business brand of tractors. On the bright side there were signs of winter life at a bar and the public library.

Just outside Blandinsville, I saw another dilapidated house adjoining TIAA’s vast fields, a few scattered grain bins standing alone, and more signs of soil neglect.

TIAA’s accumulation of farmland isn’t helping their faculty clients from Western Illinois University who just lost their jobs. In fact, it’s contributing significantly to further decline of agricultural areas in the U.S. and threatening the right to food and damaging the environment in Brazil.
The problem isn’t just that TIAA is the world’s largest owner of farmland. It’s that they are seen as leading the way in the corporate ownership of farmland. TIAA executives are the keynote speakers at conferences of farmland buyers. TIAA led the writing of the Principles of Responsible Investment in Farmland which are being used as a curtain for other banks and funds to hide behind. These same poorly defined principles are undermining stronger consensus-based international agreements, such as the UN Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests.
We should not be fooled by TIAA’s reports. We need an entirely different kind of investment in agriculture that supports diversified family farms and farming communities everywhere and focuses on producing and consuming much more food locally.  This kind of investment needs public support. In the U.S. we need a Green New Deal that includes family farming. 
Perhaps there is a place for investment from retirement funds to be working in the public interest, but before we can find that place, investment funds like TIAA need to listen to their clients and address the harm that is occurring through land grabbing and accumulation.
The picture isn’t completely bleak. In both rural Illinois and northeastern Brazil, there are lots of reasons to be hopeful. People and organizations are working to strengthen communities and create a healthier environment. In Brazil, a large campaign has been organized to protect the Cerrado, and local organizations are connecting communities with international solidarity campaigns to protect their land rights. In Illinois, a statewide organization is bringing together people of different faith backgrounds to advocate for climate justice and support for family farming. During my visit I heard about community-supported agriculture in Champaign County and about farms that that are engaged in diverse livestock and crop production systems that protect the watershed.
TIAA needs to return to communities in Brazil all land that was illegitimately privatized, even if it was done by earlier land grabbers. In regions of the US where TIAA has amassed farmland, company leadership should engage with local communities and family farmers organizations to facilitate the return of the land to locally based owners. TIAA should set an example for others by supporting reform of land policies to protect and promote the land tenure rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, households and individuals, especially women and marginalized groups. TIAA should invest in food systems in ways that support locally controlled agriculture and food production that meets the needs of local communities, contributing to food sovereignty and broader food security.
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