The study quantified the maximum amount of food that could be produced from crops grown on large-scale land acquisitions should investments in agriculture improve crop production and close the yield gap. In contrast, only about 190-370 million people could be fed if this land was left tended to by the local population.
“The study is the first time that researchers have calculated the amount of crops and calories that could be produced in the acquired land and the number of people it could feed,“ Paolo D'Odorico, co-author of the study and environmental science professor at the University of Virginia, United States, says in an interview with SciDev.Net.
The year-long research conducted by D’Odorico and Maria Cristina Rulli, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy, contends that if all of the acquired lands were farmed to full capacity using modern farming techniques, this would result in a 100 per cent closure of the yield gap. They calculate there would be increases of 308 per cent in rice production, 280 per cent in corn production, 148 per cent in sugar cane production, and 130 per cent in oil palm production.
But critics contend that such massive acquisitions hurt the livelihood and food security of local communities as these farmlands are used not to produce crops for domestic consumption but to raise cash crops for the export market, with little or no benefit to the local population.
Most of the large-scale land acquisitions have occurred in Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the former Sudan. These countries account for 82 per cent of the total food calories that can be produced by acquired croplands worldwide.
D’Odorico suggests that policymakers could take a look at their study and use this to craft policies that protect local communities.
Bruce Tolentino, deputy director general at the International Rice Research Institute, notes the increasing pressure on countries to improve production to assure food security for their ever-growing populations.
“The pressure on land is worsened when the development of land-saving technology lags behind the pace of growth of population and consumer food demand,” Tolentino tells SciDev.Net. “Only agriculture technology like irrigation can help boost production even if the area devoted to food production remains the same or even gets smaller.”
On the other hand, Wyn Ellis, coordinator for the Sustainable Rice Platform at the UN Environment Programme Regional Office for Asia-Pacific, says calculations of yield potentials “only make sense if we can expect such productivity to be sustained over time”.
“Such acquisitions may be considered as land grabbing, leaving poor countries open to exploitation and ‘mining’ of the land, with little concern for long-term sustainability, local food security needs or environmental protection,” Ellis stresses.
Link to full paper in Environment Research Letters
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.