The global farmland grab goes green
Back in March of this year, Bill Gates was fielding questions on the online platform Reddit, promoting his new book on the climate crisis. Gates had just recently been revealed to be the largest farmland owner in the US, and one of the Reddit participants asked him why he was buying so much agricultural land. Gates replied: “My investment group chose to do this. It is not connected to climate.”
The first part of his answer is typical billionaire-speak. The world's richest tend to place their money with family offices whose managers are tasked to make as much profit as possible. If they get called out for funding pipelines and factory farms, then the billionaires can feign ignorance and say their "investment group" chose to do it. It's a similar dynamic with pension funds, where workers entrust their retirement savings to schemes that invest in all kinds of projects that undermine the well-being of working people around the planet.
Today there are 7,000 family offices that collectively manage US$5.9 trillion in assets, while pension funds in just 22 countries control a staggering US$52.5 trillion in assets. An increasing number of these family offices and pension funds are, like Gates' group, choosing to buy up farmland. This can be done directly, as Gates's group has done buying farms in the US, or indirectly via private equity funds, as those managing Gates' trust fund have done to acquire a stake in farms in East Africa and oil palm plantations in the Congo.
Contrary to what Gates' stated in the second part of his answer to the Reddit participant, this growing interest in farmland is deeply connected with climate. On a straightforward level, food and farming account for up to 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN's International Panel on Climate Change, and the model of industrial agriculture practiced and promoted by Bill Gates' funded agencies is largely to blame.
But there's another connection: these days the companies that are in the business of selling farmland to billionaires and pension funds are peddling it as a green, sustainable and socially responsible investment. They are even marketing farmland investing for its potential to generate carbon offsets. And the propaganda is working. Farmland is an increasingly appealing proposition for pension fund managers and billionaires who are under pressure to show some action on the climate crisis-- and to hold off regulators that might force them to do more.
“There are some big macro-level trends around why existing institutional investors are becoming interested in land again, or looking to expand their portfolios if they already invest in land,” said Emily Norton, head of rural research at the property agency Savills, to the Financial Times. “There was a post-recessionary flight to safe assets [after the 2008 financial crisis], but the bigger trend is probably factors related to climate mitigation . . . increasingly, climate-positive trends are driving institutions and family offices to say: ‘Yes, that’s the reason we want to be in that asset class’.”
As an example, this year the pension fund of the Dutch postal company PostNL put €200 million into a new farmland fund, bluntly called the SDG Farmland Fund (SDG refers to the sustainable development goals of the United Nations).
“We found farmland interesting as it overlaps with sustainable themes such as climate change, food safety and food security," said René van der Kieft, president of Pensioenfonds PostNL. "The investment fits with the SDG ‘Climate Action’, but also with ‘Life Below Water, ‘Zero Hunger, ‘Clean Water and ‘Sanitation and ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’. It provides us with an ideal opportunity to combine many SDGs.”
The Dutch pension fund, like most other institutional investors, is, for the time being, focussing on acquiring farmland in the “business secure” geographies of North America, Europe, Oceania and South America. But that could change. Indeed, private equity funds are already channeling important volumes of pension fund money into companies that operate farms in Africa and Asia, often with backing from development banks.
US pension fund manager TIAA, a co-founder of the UN's Principles for Responsible Farmland Investing, has probably done more than any other company to market farmland investing as "green". Today, TIAA manages a portfolio of nearly one million hectares of farmland around the world, worth about US$8 billion, on behalf of numerous pension funds in Asia, North America and Europe. But it has come under scrutiny, in particular for its land deals in Brazil's Cerrado region, which have been shown to be linked to land grabs, deforestation and environmental destruction. Several US university unions and faculty associations with pensions managed by TIAA have recently passed or put forward resolutions condemning TIAA for its farmland acquisitions.
TIAA's responded by going further and further with its green branding. In April 2020, TIAA's agricultural subsidiary, Westchester, joined about a dozen other major farmland investors in launching Leading Harvest, "the first scalable, industry-wide standard paving the way for universal sustainable farmland management". This standard is so far only available in the US but, as noted by TIAA, "it may be adapted for use outside of the United States in the future."
The goal here is to define a global standard for sustainability that is suited to the large-scale, industrialised farming operations that TIAA and other farmland players are buying up and building but that is also good enough to appease most potential investors and downstream buyers of their harvests.
"There was a lot of effort in making sure that this standard meets the needs of the investor as well as of the farmer and the landowner,” says Steve Bruere, president of Peoples Company, another US-based farmland management company that co-founded Leading Harvest.
The big farmland players are also pushing farmland and corporate farmland ownership as a way for corporations to achieve net zero carbon emission targets, and are investing heavily to quantify the emissions that can be reduced or carbon that can be captured in the soil by tweaking their industrial agricultural practices.
“Many [companies] have been coming out with targets to be carbon neutral by a certain date, and one tool to help with that is to invest in timberland and farmland,” says Martin Davies, chief executive of TIAA's Westchester Group. His company just hired a new head of sustainability to "support Westchester's response to rising investor demand for carbon neutral portfolios, providing scalable, natural solutions to counter climate change through farmland investments.”
All of this is closely tied to developments in the digitalising of agriculture. The digital land records and massive quantities of data that big tech companies like Microsoft and Amazon are vacuuming up from farmers' fields make it easier for the farmland companies to scour the planet for profitable farmland deals. They can also use satellite technologies and drones to monitor their farms from a distance, ensuring that those operating their farms are complying with their standards and directives.
Taken together, the advances in digital agriculture and the opportunities for carbon credits and greenwashing have the potential to make transnational, financialised farming operations more profitable, and certainly more appealing to investors.
The world's farmland, as the farmland fund managers like to repeat, is finite. So, as corporations inhabit more of it, the less there is for small farmers, indigenous peoples and rural communities. Already these people are surviving on a dwindling fraction of the world's farmlands, and still producing most of the world's food. In 2014 we estimated that small farms occupied less than a quarter of the world's farmlands.
The corporate farmland grabbers want people to think that this does not matter.
“I don’t think there’s anything especially notable about who buys farmland, if an institutional buyer buys it or a wealthy individual buys it or a neighboring farmer buys it … It’s still going to be used the same way in the following year and the returns to that asset are not influenced much at all by who happens to own it at a point in time,” says Bruce Sherrick, the director of TIAA Center for Farmland Research and board member of Leading Harvest.
But it absolutely does matter whether farmlands are in the hands of a corporation or a community of small farmers or pastoralists. Small farms have greater biodiversity and tree cover. They feed their communities with healthy foods. They generate and distribute wealth locally and fairly and build dynamic communities. They can and often do practice agroecology without fossil fuels or chemical inputs. And, as a new global study published in Nature concludes, they even produce significantly higher yields than big corporate farms. Small farms do not, however, offer much opportunity for pension fund managers and billionaire family offices to extract profits.
And that is the crux of the problem. Those who presently control the world's financial flows are not capable of supporting the food producers and food systems that can deal with the climate crisis or the many other crises afflicting food and agriculture. Our challenge is to get both farmland and money out of their hands, as fast as we can.