The controversy regarding India’s permission to allow foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail and growing “land grab” in Africa by multinational corporations are being closely watched globally by agriculture experts, researchers and donors.

At a workshop here on ‘Supporting Policy Research to Inform Agricultural Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia’ — which a few journalists from both regions were invited to attend — experts pointed out the growing phenomenon of “outsiders” displacing farmers to do commercial agriculture for exports.

There was an equal concern at the workshop — organised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the the Global Development Network funded by a consortium of donors, including the Bill Gates Foundation and the World Bankregarding subsidies in the sector which, Douglas Gollin of University of Oxford pointed out, “was driving away investments” from the sector.

Per Pinstrup-Anderson of Cornell University expressed concern regarding the “land grab” phenomenon and told The Hindu that “it is nasty that small land-holding farmers are being taken off their farms by international investment corporations, capital funds and pension funds, without creation of employment for displaced farmers or even compensation. It is a challenge to get responsible investment in rural areas due to land robbery.”

Interestingly, one of the participants was Ghana Member of Parliament Ahmed Yakubu Alhassan, who has a constituency with 8000 hectares of fertile land under the control of a Libyan government institute for cultivation of rice, fruits and vegetables. He told The Hindu that his government was “concerned” and “watching” the situation. “But these corporations and rich people negotiate directly with village heads. But soon we will bring a law that fertile land cannot be taken away and only such land of farmers who have alternate land/livelihood land can be contracted. Farmers should be compensated properly for the loss of fertile land.”

Quoting statistics on how diversion of land and diversification of crops had affected the percentage of high-value agriculture commodities, Indian research team leader Vijay Paul Sharma of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, said the percentage of grains had come down to 24.7 per cent from 31.3 per cent between 2007-08 and 1983-84. Compared to this, fruits and vegetables had gone up to 16.9 per cent from 14.1 per cent, milk was up to 17.4 per cent from 12.7 per cent, meat and fish was up to 8.9 per cent from 6.1 per cent, and oilseeds went up to 5.8 per cent from 5.3 per cent in these years.

During this period, the percentage cropping area of major crops like coarse cereals and pulses declined to 14.8 per cent from 23.7 per cent and to 12.1 per cent from 13.4 per cent, while oilseeds, sugarcane, and fruits and vegetables went up.

In his presentation on ‘Commercialisation of Agriculture’, he pointed out that in India the major drivers were emergence of organised retail and food supply chains like KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut etc., trade opportunities, improved infrastructure, private sector participation in contract farming, higher disposable incomes, increase in number of working women and urbanisation.

Still, Professor Sharma pointed out, small landholdings were becoming smaller and smaller and supply chains were becoming bigger and bigger, with no link between the two.

According to him, a way forward was to empower small farmers in both the regions of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by aggregation of produce, improved new technology, better infrastructure, credit, land tenure policies and market intelligence, and private sector involvement in contract farming and capacity building for improved food and quality standard.

The workshop set out to “help shape” North-South debates on agriculture policies based on findings by their researchers, by collating available data and literature, and sometimes taking up projects to assess the situation.

“The project engaged 40 researchers from leading universities and organisations to identify policy lessons learnt in five farm areas, including irrigation, fertiliser use, pricing and public procurement, long-term food security, and how to manage commercial agriculture for inclusive growth,” pointed out George Mavrotas, Chief Economist of the Global Development Network, with Director of Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Agricultural Development Economics Division, Kostas Stamoulis, steering the proceedings.

African team leader Professor Saa Dittoh pointed out the non-availability of fertilisers in the region and very little use that allowed fertile land to remain unused, and the advent of global corporations to control the landholdings. “The arrangement will have to be looked at closely, and investments made so that Africa can come up.” He expressed concern regarding “outsiders” using up water from the rivers for commercial agriculture, further threatening the survival of small holders.

There was no conclusion or recommendations at the workshop, but the underlying message was clear: Farmers will have to learn to deal with the new environment that favours commercialisation of agriculture with the rider that governments should know how to protect the interests of their producers and consumers through laws and interventions that don’t allow the private sector a free run.

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