‘The Grab’ review: Exposing a nearly invisible conspiracy to control the world’s food and water
By Peter Debruge
You’ve heard the expression, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” Well, “The Grab” makes the case that society had best brace itself for disorder, since certain parties are gobbling up the world’s food and water resources while the rest of us are distracted by other things. Produced in association with the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s astonishing, eye-opening doc hits us with the idea that the next world war won’t be fought over ideology, oil or border disputes, but basic resources like meat, wheat and water, none of which should be taken for granted.
Experts call this field “food security,” and the entire system is more fragile than it looks. World populations are climbing while water resources are dwindling, which has led countries such as Saudi Arabia and China to seek farmland on other continents. Among its myriad examples, “The Grab” focuses on a 15-square-mile expanse in La Paz, Ariz., an arid desert locale where there’s no limit to the amount of water landowners can pump from the aquifers. Arizona’s policy of unrestricted access means Saudi investors can legally tap into the water table to grow fields of hay, which will be shipped home to feed their cattle, even if it means draining the wells of local farmers in the process.
It’s the same principle described at the end of “There Will Be Blood,” when a triumphant Daniel Day-Lewis crows, “I drink your milkshake!” Only now, it’s H2O, not oil, that’s at stake. Versions of the same thing are already happening all over the world (not that Americans should pretend for a second that they’re not among the culprits of the global resource snatch). A good part of what makes “The Grab” so alarming is the reminder of what’s being done to satisfy your own consumer comfort.
For years, the West had a virtual monopoly on this phenomenon: Colonialism has historically been less about taking care of foreign peoples than about taking control of their resources. And now, other countries — like fast-growing China — are looking for a piece of the proverbial pie. “The Grab” points to the Great Chinese Famine and the Arab Spring as examples of shortfalls that reshaped nations, and suggests that world leaders must anticipate their people’s food and water needs if they hope to stay in power.
Want to understand the reason Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine? Look no further than the besieged country’s status as supplier of 29% of the global wheat trade. Russia already took a big bite of the country in 2014, to which Ukraine responded by cutting off water to Crimea. It’s no coincidence that Russian forces occupied the canal on day one of their latest offensive, destroying the dam blocking water from the Dnieper River. (Not upset enough about Putin? Just wait’ll you hear why global warming is a good thing to a country that sees usable ranch land under areas of ice.)
Simply repeating the film’s points makes one sound like some kind of conspiracy nut, and yet, the truth is outrageous — like the way Blackwater founder Erik Prince turned his attention to a new venture, Frontier Resources Group. Operating like mercenaries, FRG reps talked about gobbling up fields and forests in Africa, driving poor villagers out of their homes, so their land can be used to feed distant regions.
The big picture here is so elusive and vast that it helps Cowperthwaite to have a few intrepid investigators to follow, letting their research drive the shape of the film (which, when you unpack it, must have been one hell of a task to structure). Her main character is CIR sleuth Nate Halverson, a tenacious journalist who broke enough of these stories that he now understands how they connect.
Halverson explains how looking into the acquisition of Smithfield Foods (a livestock company responsible for one in four American pigs) by a state-funded Chinese company led straight back to President Xi Jinping’s national strategy. All these revelations sound sinister, playing on audiences’ fears of the other without seriously challenging the degree to which their own governments do the same. It’s not fair, but those with money have always been in a position to buy mines, fields and whatever means they need to transport those resources away from where they’re harvested. So what’s new here?
On one hand, all this harvesting is being done in plain sight; on the other, there’s enormous secrecy about how companies (many of them private-looking fronts for government interests, deceptively hidden behind layers of offshore accounts) are going about the actual pillaging — and the public deserves to know. Untangling those arrangements is what Halverson and fellow investigators Mallory Newman and Emma C. Schwartz have been focused on, playing cloak and dagger as the paranoia mounts (as when they disable the camera and internet functions on a computer terminal before accessing “the trove,” a massive leak of damning insider data).
There’s so much at stake in this arena that one half expects these journalist heroes to be silenced along the way. For that reason, “The Grab” unspools like a thriller in one sense and a dystopian science fiction movie in another. The entire situation might be incredibly depressing were it not for a few heroes Halverson identifies along the way, like Brigadier Siachitema, or “Brig,” a Zambian human rights lawyer who takes the case of those displaced by companies like FRG. Accountability is the first step, and to that end, “The Grab” doesn’t entirely let its audience off the hook. We are what we eat, after all, and the more responsibly sourced our food, the better we can all feel about ourselves.