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Sustainable food security amidst Indian land rush

Sep 14, 2011

Managing our soil and water resources needs a new political vision manifest in the proposed Land Bill and Global Soil & Water Partnerships, says India’s agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan.

On the basis of a proposal I had made three years ago, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) launched a Global Soil Partnership for Food Security and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation at a multi-stakeholder conference, held in Rome from September 7 to 9. Even with all the advances made in capture and culture fisheries, nearly 90% of food requirements will have to come from the soil.


Land is becoming a diminishing resource for agriculture, in spite of a growing understanding that the future of food security will depend upon the sustainable management of land resources as well as the conservation of prime farmland for agriculture.

In its report submitted in 2006, the National Commission on Farmers has emphasised the need for replacing the 1894 Land Acquisition Law with a 21st century legislation that safeguards the interests of farmers and farming. Union Minister for Rural Development, and Drinking Water and Sanitation Jairam Ramesh is to be complimented for introducing in Parliament a National Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill 2011, which pays attention not only to acquisition but also to the rehabilitation and resettlement of affected families.

A High-level panel of experts set up under my chairmanship in 2010 by the U.N. Committee on Food Security (CFS) has recently submitted to the CFS a report on Land Tenure and International Investments in Agriculture. It analyses the potential impact of acquisitions, particularly in Africa, on food security. It has been estimated that 50 million to 80 million hectares of farmland in developing countries has been the subject of negotiations by international investors in recent years, two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa, widely recognised as a "hot spot" for endemic hunger. We found little evidence that such large-scale acquisitions have helped to provide food and jobs to the local population.

More than three quarters of the deals are yet to demonstrate improvements in agricultural output. The panel identified several steps that governments should take towards more effective and equitable land tenure systems, starting with creating more transparent systems for registering, tracking and protecting land rights, in particular of women, tribal families and other vulnerable groups who depend on common property resources for the security of their livelihoods.

We found little evidence that such large-scale acquisitions have helped to provide food and jobs to the local population.

Satellite and aerial imagery used in biophysical surveys is blind to the rights and institutions that govern how land is actually used on the ground. According to the World Bank, the "land rush" is not likely to slow. As a result, the landless labour population will grow, leading to greater unrest in the rural areas of developing countries.

The loss of land for food security has to be measured not only in quantitative terms but also in respect of land use. According to the US Department of Agriculture, American farmers will, for the first time, harvest during 2011 more maize for ethanol production than for food or feed. In Europe, about 50% of rapeseed is likely to be used for biofuel production. The plant-animal-man food chain (particularly beef and poultry products) will need several times more land for producing a calorie of meat, as compared to a calorie of cereal or vegetable.

The sudden escalation in the price of rice and wheat observed in 2008 was largely due to a steep increase in the price of fossil fuels, leading to a rise in input costs. The growing diversion of farmland for fuel production in industrialised countries, increasing consumption of meat on the part of the affluent, and loss of land to roads, houses and industries are likely to lead to acute food scarcity, severe price volatility and high food inflation by the end of this decade. Experts have pointed out that “the Arab Spring” had its genesis in food inflation. This is why I have been stressing that the future belongs to nations with grains, and not guns.

According to the World Bank, the "land rush" is not likely to slow. As a result, the landless labour population will grow, leading to greater unrest in the rural areas of developing countries.

On the basis of widespread consultations, the FAO has recently prepared "voluntary guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests in the context of national food security." These will be considered at the next meeting of the CFS in October 2011. There are elements here worthy of consideration by the committee of Parliament, which will go into the provisions of the Land Bill. For example, one of them states, "subject to their national law and legislations and in accordance with national context, States should expropriate only where rights to land (including associated buildings and other structures), fisheries or forests are required for a public purpose. In no way should expropriation or forced eviction be made for private purposes."

The guidelines also recommend that "States should ensure that women and girls have equal tenure rights and access to land, fisheries and forests, independent of their civil or marital status." Business models should involve steps which will help to generate employment opportunities and strengthen the livelihood security of the poor. "Food security first" should be the motto of the Land Bill. Large-scale investment in biofuels is a risk and must be avoided, unless there are situations, as for example in Brazil, where such investments provide a win-win situation for both food and energy security. Land tenure is key to protecting land rights. The Central and State governments should have accessible systems for registering, tracking and protecting land rights, including customary rights and common property resources.

In 1981, member-states of the FAO adopted a world soil charter, containing a set of principles for the optimum use of land resources and for the improvement of their productivity as well as conservation. The charter called for a commitment on the part of governments and land users to manage land for long-term advantage rather than short-term expediency.

The future belongs to nations with grains, and not guns

International interest in the conservation and management of soil resources for food security and climate change adaptation and mitigation has grown in recent years, because of increasing diversion of land for non-farm uses. In May 2011, at a conference at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies e.V., Potsdam, Germany, a Global Soil Forum (GSF) was formed for enhancing investment in soil resources assessment and management. The forum, with financial support from Germany and a few other donors, was to help identify key technological options to enhance and sustain soil-based ecosystem services, to safeguard food security in the long-term. To emphasise the need to conserve soil biodiversity, the European Union has prepared a comprehensive European soil biodiversity atlas.

Over 15 years ago, a Global Water Partnership (GWP) was formed to stimulate attention and action at the national, regional and global levels on sustainable water security. It was conferred the status of an international organisation by the government of Sweden in 2002. India is a partner. Land use decisions are also water use decisions and hence the organisation of a GSP to work closely with the GWP is timely. The GSP will specifically address soil degradation, conservation of soil biodiversity, gender and social equity, climate change and soil health management for an evergreen revolution in agriculture. It will provide multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional platforms for mobilising the power of partnership in managing threats to food security arising from climate change and “land rush.”

Soil anaemia also breeds human anaemia. Micronutrient deficiency in the soil results in micronutrient malnutrition in people, since crops grown on such soils tend to be deficient in the nutrients needed to fight hidden hunger. With the addition of the GSP to the GWP, and with the likely adoption of the guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land and other Natural Resources, we have the global instruments which can assist nations to safeguard and strengthen the ecological foundations of sustainable agriculture and for overcoming endemic, hidden and transient hunger.

What is needed is the conversion of global instruments and guidelines into socially sustainable and equitable national regulations, on the lines recommended in the experts report on land tenure. The Land Bill has a much wider significance than just preventing land-grab. The critical role soil plays in food security and climate change adaptation and mitigation has to be widely understood.

Along with oceans, soils offer opportunities for storing carbon. For example, it is estimated that global net primary productivity (NPP) may be about 120 Gt C/year. Most of it is returned to the atmosphere through plant and soil respiration. If 10% of NPP is retained in the terrestrial biosphere like wetlands and mangrove ecosystems, 12 Gt C/year can become a part of a terrestrial carbon bank. Increasing soil ‘C' pool by 1 t/c/ha/year in the root zone can increase food production by 30-50 million tonnes. Thus, soil carbon banks represent a win-win situation for both food security and climate change mitigation.

Managing our soil and water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner needs a new political vision, which can be expressed through the proposed Land Bill. The year 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit and the 40th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. This will be an appropriate occasion to launch a soil and water security movement through education, social mobilisation through gram sabhas, and legislation like the Land Bill.

Source : The Hindu
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