Reframing the Debate: What does food waste have to do with land grabbing?

This post was authored with Elizabeth Fraser, Policy Analyst at the Oakland Institute.

Conversations about food waste often raise three important concerns: global hunger,[1] wasted resources,[2] and greenhouse gas emissions.[3] There is, however, another aspect of the food waste story that is often overlooked – one that has to do with land.

Over the past decade, land grabs – the purchase or lease of large tracts of land in the Global South by wealthy countries or investors – have skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2011, 203 million hectares of land – nearly eight times the size of Britain – were reportedly acquired through these deals.

For the past nine years, researchers at the Oakland Institute have investigated land grabs, examining who’s behind them, why they’re happening, and most importantly, what impact they’re having on the ground. A key driver behind these deals is a sense of urgency around scarcity. In the face of rising food prices and growing populations, proponents argue that land grabs (or “investments” as they are often called) can make way for increased industrial food production, and thus be a solution to food insecurity.

The same sense of scarcity has wooed investors to enter the land market – to speculate on the price of food and land with the hope of turning a profit. Our research uncovered a Texas-based company at the forefront of a deal to acquire up to one million hectares of land for just 40 cents per hectare per year. We spoke to a CEO who claimed that their company could be “moronic and not grow anything” and still make a profit off their lands in Africa. We exposed university pension funds looking to make a big buck by investing in equity firms that are grabbing land around the world. And much more.

To make matters worse, these deals, which are frequently promoted as “development,” can involve the forced displacement of local communities – including indigenous groups, pastoralists, and subsistence farmers. Those who resist face threats, violence, exile, and even arrest.

But, what do land grabs have to do with food waste?

Statistics about food waste bring to rest the argument that scarcity is at the root of food insecurity. An FAO report estimated that the total amount of food wasted globally in 2007 “occupied almost 1.4 billion hectares” of land – vastly larger than the 203 million hectares that has been grabbed in recent years, demonstrating that taking over huge swathes of land in the developing world is not a clear solution to food insecurity.

So when we talk about food waste, along with global hunger, wasted resources, and greenhouse gas emissions, let us not forget to also talk about land. About the hundreds of thousands of people who have been pushed off their land brutally and unnecessarily to make way for industrial agricultural production, up to a third of which can be expected to end up as food waste, and the investors who expect to make a hefty profit off of these deals. And when powerful actors like the World Bank try to convince us that ”investment in land” is necessary to address food insecurity, let us not forget that scarcity is not the real problem.

By reframing the debate around food waste, we can have more informed conversation about global hunger and land grabs. It is only when we see past the smokescreen of scarcity that we can truly get to work.

This post is part of our “Reclaim” initiative, which showcases solutions to the issue of food waste and engages our readers to take action. You can find all the posts in this initiative, as well as feature pieces, investigative stories and video, here. Follow the initiative on Twitter at #Reclaim. And if you'd like to add your own thoughts to our series, sign up here for a HuffPost blog account.

[1] 2.9 trillion pounds of food are wasted each year, while at the same time, nearly 800 million people are going hungry.

[2] Food waste in the US alone represents $161 billion of lost investments annually, and makes up 21 percent of the country’s municipal solid waste.

[3] If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third highest greenhouse gas emitter, only surpassed by China and the US.

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