Californians, now just recovering from a multi-year drought, are debating the merits of a foreign resource grab, in this case water.
At the center of this issue is a tract of farmland belonging to Fondomonte Farms, a subsidiary of a Saudi food giant. Fondomonte grows alfalfa that is then exported to feed cattle in Saudi Arabia.
With the Saudi Arabian landscape there being mostly desert and alfalfa being a water-intensive crop, growing it there has always been expensive and draining on scarce water resources, to the point that the Saudi government finally outlawed the practice in 2016. In the wake of the ban, Almarai decided to purchase land wherever it is cheap and has favorable water conditions to produce enough feed for its 93,000 cows.
In 2012, they acquired 30,000 acres of land in Argentina, and in 2014, they bought their first swath of land in Arizona. Then, in 2015, they bought 1,700 acres in Blythe – a vast, loamy, agricultural metropolis abutting the Colorado river, where everything but the alfalfa seems cast in the hue of sand. Four years later, the company owns 15,000 acres – 16% of the entire irrigated valley.
But what business does a foreign company have drawing precious resources from a US desert to offset a lack of resources halfway around the globe?
It's called "virtual water." The water consumed to produce crops and other goods. Israel, at one point, had to curb its production and export of the excellent jaffa oranges because, in each case, it was exporting water it could not afford to lose.
In an increasingly food insecure world, affluent have-nots are looking for access to food sources in other nations, especially those that can offer irrigation. They're often willing to pay premium prices beyond the means of the local population.
This is nothing new. The developed nations have been doing this for decades. Even in highly food insecure Third World countries the best farmland is often taken by multinational food giants.
A good example is a case study that I learned about in an online course. The course was ostensibly about global food security but from a British perspective. It focused on how fresh strawberries were kept year round on grocery shelves. They called the policy "following the sun." During the British growing season they sold British-grown strawberries. As that season ended the food producers shifted production to southern Europe. After that it was on to Africa. More strawberries.
What wasn't addressed in the course was the state of food security for the peoples of those African nations and how the food industry got control of the best farmland. Some of these countries routinely faced severe food insecurity bordering on famine. These were countries that the international community periodically has to provide massive food relief. Starvation is the sword of Damocles over their heads.
That led to a look at how these companies, European, Middle Eastern and Asian, effected these land grabs. In many cases it came down to the absence of any land registry system. People who farmed or ranched on lands that had been in their families for generations, centuries held no demonstrable title to the land. There was no land title. That allowed unscrupulous officials to sell their land to these foreign land grabbers and they, indeed, received enforceable title. The locals were simply driven off their land.
It was sometimes the case that food, good food, was plentiful on local grocery shelves but at prices that the local population could not afford. That is something that we have to start thinking about.
A few years ago there was some sort of disease that swept through shellfish in Asia. No problem. They came to the Canadian market. In no time spot prawns were $40 a pound - the Asian price. Restaurants took prawns off the menu, they were too costly. Local buyers gave them a pass.
Now here's the thing. Is this a threat to our own food security? Can we allow foreign buyers to drive our market prices out of reach? Can we allow foreign land grabs of our best agricultural land?
The fishery example is even worse. The commercial fleet doesn't produce that seafood. They merely harvest it. Before they have it in their holds those fish are public property. They belong to the state or province. Do we need to control how much of their catch they may sell abroad and how much should be kept for domestic consumption to ensure both access and reasonable prices?
The moment has surely arrived to have a serious national discussion on maintaining Canada's own food security. The recent Chinese stunt of leaving Canadian canola producers high and dry by canceling orders shows how these countries are willing to weaponize food production and supply. That's an entirely hostile act by the same country that pursues our land.
We know what's coming. Food production faces a perilous future. Four years ago the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, reported what leading agronomists had been warning about for years - arable farmland is becoming seriously degraded even in Canada. As the FAO put it, we have 60 harvests remaining - a rather inelegant way of saying our food production capacity is falling off even as our global population burgeons.
In 2011, Oxfam warned that global food prices for most staples will probably double by 2030.
To put the global problem in perspective, here's the 2013 Maplecroft food security risk index. All the regions in yellow, orange and red face serious food insecurity. What's left? North America, Australia and western Europe, the green territories. Only Canada is the darkest green, which probably makes us the prime target for the food insecure.
Canada and the US total somewhere in the vicinity of 350 to 360 million. An eyeball guess of western Europe and Scandinavia is probably around 450 million. Australia adds about 25 million. All in we're probably in the 800 to 850 million range. In a world nearing 8 billion strong that leaves 7 billion facing food insecurity. We're way outnumbered and we have to come to grips with how we'll respond to this disparity of something no human can do without - food. Water? That's another critical resource that threatens many of these same food insecure nations.
Isn't it about time we thought about our own food and water security and how we preserve as much as necessary for future generations? These are genuinely strategic questions and we need to realize we can't rely on the invisible hand of the marketplace any longer.