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In land we trust: The next gold rush

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 14 February 2013 00:00


We have witnessed a few recent events of going after gems on gravel placed on stretches of road down south or of immersing oneself into the Kelani River desperately in search of pure gold.

After a few days, it is no longer news for the media and for those who have joined in the rush though the possibility of another occurrence somewhere else can never be ruled out considering the well-known human weaknesses and the media’s demonstrated aptitude for sensationalising the useless.

It is well understood that while we have moved on from cannibalism to capitalism, the resources of different kinds have always played a central role as we meandered through complex pathways searching for eternal development and personal wealth and happiness.

While these sporadic events have a spontaneous beginning, some new rushes may be bit more pre-planned and lot better conceived and the rush for land may be one of that. It is because the 21st century challenges will centre round food, energy and water. Thanks to globalisation, one may view and value a resource from anywhere with impunity and may plan ownership and land as a resource has entered into that realm.



Sustainability criteria

I started writing this while participating in an international gathering brought in by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) concerned with the development of sustainability criteria for bio energy. I was able to observe and interact with a group of individuals from around 30 countries considering this objective.

The delegates from Asia and Africa had been supported by Sweden and it was interesting that a pre-meeting held for this select group had sessions on developing negotiation skills which was well received. Without that material support from Sweden it is unlikely that the number of countries at that event would have reached the number it had. Not many of these governments would have understood the importance of sending in delegates.

The final objective was to achieve another ISO standard adding to the already existing 19,500 international standards. There is no question that standards can do wonders and elevating quality, productivity, safety across all areas of products and services to a higher level with a strong commonality in performance which indeed can benefit us across countries rich or poor. I would have preferred to have a common standard for plug bases across the world as I did find if you were to use your computers, etc., rather than enjoying the hospitality minus any costs and work then there is the need to purchase what the locals use.

This different plug bases have spawned a new area of business too as no free conversion devices are available to the workaholic visitor. Of course the innovator would design the universal unit which would cost much more than a simple mobile phone!

Criteria development is tricky and even more so with sustainability. In fact still if you ask a direct question how sustainability looks and feels, answering can be quite difficult. Big countries and big powers will think quite different to small and less developed countries and those who are about to be submerge due to climate change. For the latter the criteria should be applied to others on how they work and play as they are going under for no fault of theirs but more due to excessive consumption and selfishness of some others. In this particular instance it was deciding on sustainability criteria for all players across the bio energy value chain. Understand the bio energy value chain and you can contemplate the challenge.

Around 2007 and 2008 the world witnessed rising fuel prices as well as food prices and a connection was discussed. What we heard in this meeting was that the direct connection or the nexus is not clear and that there is no scientific clear evidence of such a link and hence bio energy can be considered without food security entering into the picture.

Delinking food security from energy security is quite interesting and can have far-reaching consequences. The land use can be considered independently and even a single plot undergoes change what it would mean is that there is no opportunity lost for the other and no problem to the wider community.


Economic operators

The criteria can address anyone within the value chain and each party can considered to be an economic operator. The nature, scale, abilities, attitudes, work ethics and inner power can vary across these economic operators. The front end economic operator is the person who will grow or produce raw material for the bio energy value chain.

In Sri Lanka an albeasia grower or a restaurant chain yielding waste cooking oil can be classified as economic operators. On the other side a refinery owner or a biomass power plant too are economic operators. Now the sustainability criteria should consider all different aspects of these operators and their physical locations and operations.

A refinery owner can influence across a wider group as they would be influencing long-distance farming including where and by whom. One element which will not be disputed is the mandatory consideration of social, environmental and economic elements in deriving the criteria. How well and comprehensive you address social and environmental linkages and performances will mean the accuracy of your work and the honesty of your purpose.

John Elkington in his famous book ‘Cannibals with Forks,’ which espoused the Triple Bottom Line concept, stated that in the 21st century the ‘price of entry’ that the society demand from business is ‘sustainability’ and hence criteria determination and validation and standard strategies considered under this ISO standard are all important.

It is with strong participation that one can influence as well understands forces and ideas at play and the meeting opened up our eyes in many ways. It is important to understand that if we are to grow our food, live our lives and grow our energy too from the same land mass, competition has to come in some day.

The fact is that as yet bio energy is not mainstream energy in countries. This is true with many developing economies as bio energies do not operate in the domain of commercial energy. With globalisation and with increased demand for reducing GHG emissions one can grow your energy elsewhere and proceed to source or have carbon accounting.

Where the energy is grown, if the offer is attractive, one may witness the shift of land for more opportunistic bio energy than for food or other use. This is what Lester Brown who runs the Worldwatch Institute has written in his new book ‘Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Security’.



The global land grab

“The global land grab” that he describes there demonstrates an acceleration of activities in this direction of leasing or buying farms and agribusinesses in poorer countries with the aim of ensuring their future supplies. One of his conclusions – economic disparities leading even to ‘food wars’ is food for thought.

Many examples of wealthy countries yet resource poor, such as Saudi Arabia and China staking claims in Ethiopia and Cambodia are listed. India and South Korea too are mentioned as active in this sphere. This type of transactions are not new but as with many things the 21st century witness increasing action on this front raising much more concern on this emerging situation.

For a smaller country when the competition rises one has to understand that the land has to surrender from one to another. It is the process that will be arrested with defined criteria as much more consensus would be sought rather than proceeding only through economic leverage. A presence of defined criteria may indicate the suitability, when a plan is mooted for two million hectares of farmland in an African country to grow jatropha for biofuel by another country. Here the land is used for an energy crop.

The European Union’s renewable energy law expects 10% of transport fuels to be from renewables in 2020. This is unlikely to be yielded utilising land within EU and one can see examples of EU using land in Sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar etc. There can also be the possibility of a grower switching supplying soybean from a food commodity market to an energy commodity market though the person will essentially continue growing the same crop.

These two scenarios can be multiplied across and the cumulative effect should be visible after a certain level of operations. It is not right to say that there is no effect – there may not be an immediate observable effect – as a result of different land use. The effect as with food may not be in the immediate neighbourhood as the switching may actually increase the prosperity of a local area as the switching is primarily because of an economic benefit.

It is in this context that during the meeting the adoption of the concept of ‘local food security’ was contested by the Sri Lankan group as the definition of local was limited to the area that is surrounding the site and its activities. These discussions and lack of consensus meant that the proposed standard still stays as a committee draft.

It may be true that there is no absolute connection identified between food security and bio energy as yet with the commercial bio energy movement being somewhat in its infancy, however the real truth is that it is not at all possible to state positively that there is no link. There is a significant knowledge deficit and that needs to be addressed quite fast to prevent adverse decisions being made citing ignorance or due to ignorance.

Today land is becoming a lucrative investment opportunity and the evidence points to a new gold rush. Once a high yielding resource is identified, there are always many interested parties who will move in as the society is not full of sustainability practitioners but more with speculators.

A global land rush is on with far more complexity with significant global security implications and it is important that we do understand the dynamics. In land we put our faith and trust for our living. The issue is when the same plot has to serve the needs of many from afar as well!


(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.)

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