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May 28, 2009

G8 move to halt 'farmland grabbing'

by Michiyo Nakamoto and Javier Blas

Japan will spearhead a drive at the Group of Eight summit to prevent "farmland grabbing" in developing countries and encourage responsible investing in agriculture.

The move shows growing fears among leading nations that rich countries such as Saudi Arabia or South Korea, which are not self-sufficient in food production, are investing in overseas land, particularly in Africa, to boost their food security.

Two United Nations agencies said African countries were giving away vast tracts of farmland to other countries and investors almost free of charge, with the only benefits consisting of vague promises of jobs and infrastructure, the Financial Times revealed.

Tokyo's initiative, which would include a set of principles for investment, aims "to harmonise and maximise the interests of both host countries and investors," in order to promote greater investment in agriculture, Japan's foreign ministry said.

While the initiative would also draw up a flexible methodology for monitoring the adherence of members to the principles, the main objective is to promote, not discourage, investment in agriculture, according to Tamaki Tsukada, director of the economic security division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "The objective is to increase global food production," he told the FT.

The trend to invest in overseas farmland is contentious, with some saying it represents a "neo-colonial" race to secure water and fertile soil with little benefit to local populations, while others say the investments can boost economic growth and provide jobs in poor countries where farmland and water are abundant.

Although the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Bank and the African Union are drawing up guidelines, agriculture officials say a G8-backed plan would have more force.

Japan will propose the initiative at the G8 summit in l'Aquila, Italy, in July, where food security will be a top issue. The G8 ministers of agriculture, at their first ever meeting last month, already warned in their communiqué that "attention should be given to the leasing and purchase of agricultural land in developing countries, to ensure that local and traditional land use is respected".

Joachim von Braun, head of the International Food Research Policy Institute, a Washington-based think- tank funded by governments, said the US was likely to be supportive of Japan's initiative as long as such guidelines were not restrictive.

The principles Japan is proposing would call for greater transparency in investment deals, respect for existing land rights, sharing benefits with locals and environmental sustainability.

Financial Times

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