Aggressive moves by China, South Korea and Gulf states to buy vast tracts of agricultural land in sub-Saharan Africa could soon be limited by a new global international protocol.

The rush for African farmland has seen the equivalent of Italy's entire arable land mass bought up by businesses from emerging economies.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the World Bank are now discussing a code of conduct for land buyers in Africa.

Amid increasing concerns over food security, it could include provisions requiring that consent is given before buying land from local people. A first draft is expected next spring.

The food rights campaign officer for Action Aid, Alex Wijeratna, said: ''There's a new scramble for land in Africa. It's growing at an incredible rate. There's massive secrecy, poor communities can't get information and they're not being consulted. There's an argument for a moratorium on sales until there's a proper framework to assess them. We are concerned that an agreement will not come fast enough.''

Earlier this year the legendary speculator George Soros highlighted a new farmland-buying frenzy caused by growing populations, scarce water supplies and climate change. South Korea has bought huge areas of Madagascar, while Chinese interests have bought large swathes of Senegal to supply it with sesame.

''I'm convinced farmland is going to be one of the best investments of our time,'' Mr Soros said. ''Eventually … the bull market will end. But that's a long ways away yet.''

The Guardian