The Yomiuri Shimbun | July 12, 2009
Major food-importing countries and those that are concerned about securing a stable supply of food have been accelerating moves to buy or rent farmland in developing nations.
Such moves are aimed at cultivating agricultural products on a large scale for the countries acquiring the farmland and making the developing nations in question bases from which the purchasing and leasing nations can import food. They are also aimed at making the developing nations stable food suppliers in preparation for another possible worldwide hike in food prices.
Generally speaking, the expansion of investment in agriculture leads to increased food production and better productivity. But if competition for farmland becomes overheated and is unregulated, it could lead to the exploitation of developing nations' farm products.
The declaration issued by the Group of Eight leaders in their latest summit meeting in L'Aquila, Italy, includes a clause stating that the G-8 will establish an international protocol concerning farmland acquisition. The G-8 nations should quickly make efforts to establish a new norm of conduct for that purpose in close cooperation with developing nations and the United Nations.
New brand of colonialism
Oil-producing countries in the Middle East and China have been rushing to obtain farmland to supply their needs. Using their abundant foreign reserves as capital, these countries have snapped up hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland abroad to cultivate wheat, corn, cotton and other agricultural products there.
Including land deals currently under negotiation, the total amount of farmland purchased or rented by the countries and companies at the forefront of moves to obtain farmland is estimated at 20 million hectares. This means they have annexed farmland with a total area more than four times the total cultivated land in Japan.
For developing nations suffering a shortage of funds for agricultural development, selling or renting out farmland offers corollary advantages in terms of land improvement, maintenance and improvement of irrigation facilities and the introduction of new agricultural technologies.
But experts point out that strife-torn and cash-poor developing nations can end up being exploited under conditions unfavorable for them when pressed by some countries, leading to negative consequences such as pollution of water sources and disruption of ecosystems due to excessive land reclamation.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warns that the rapacious acquisition of farmland and water represents a new type of colonialism. On this point, it is instructive that there have been cases in which countries and companies keen to obtain farmland were forced to drop their plans to do so in the face of opposition from farmers in developing nations.
Japan must help write rule
For Japan, the world's largest importer of food, these developments are a problem that cannot be ignored.
It is crucial that Japan actively participate in the process of establishing an international convention on farmland acquisition and, in doing so, give serious consideration to the food situation and environment in developing nations. Also, one-sided export restrictions by food-exporting countries must be prevented and efforts should be made to spread sufficient food widely among poor countries.
Rather than participating in the race for farmland overseas, Japan should concentrate on raising its food self-sufficiency rate, which is now at about 40 percent.
About 400,000 hectares of land in the nation have long been uncultivated, and the population of farmers is dwindling. Agriculture revival measures centering on intensive farming and the reuse of idle farmland have just started. The royal road toward food security for the nation starts with Japan using its own farmland.