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Outcompeting land grabbing by bio-based products using a novel approach

Land Grabbing has become a frequently used term in media reports. It refers to the surge in international commercial land transactions aiming for large scale production and exports of food and biofuels in the last years. The term builds on the concept of corporations from the Global North and governments investing in developing countries in the Global South and thereby enclosing commons and the expropriation of smallholder farmers and indigenous people in the Global South [1]. Thus, land that was used by communities under customary land rights regimes is transformed into privately owned land. Smallholders from indigenous communities are thereby excluded from the use of the lands that previously were commons.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Prices of major primary food commodities in USD per metric ton observed in important exporting regions. The given time series indicates prices in US- Dollar per metric ton for maize (U.S. No.2 Yellow, FOB Gulf of Mexico), wheat (No.1 Hard Red Winter, ordinary protein, Kansas City) and rice (5 percent broken milled white rice, Thailand nominal price quote) [3]. Since prices are observed in major exporting regions they can be seen as an indicator for world market prices of these food items. Due to transport and other costs domestic prices differ. Yet, they are closely correlated.

The food price peaks of 2008 (Fig. 1) have raised concerns about food security in net food importing countries that have relatively low endowments of arable land and a scarcity in water resources (e.g. some Gulf States, India, China and South Korea). These countries try to ensure food supply by agricultural investments in foreign countries [2]. Through mandatory blending quotas in the United States and the European Union biofuels are promoted. Thus, biofuels are one driver in the rise of large scale land acquisitions. Most land deals do not only target food production, but also biofuels and flexible outputs with uses in human nutrition and biofuels [1], [2]. Figure 2 illustrates the shares of the finalized deals production intentions.

Moreover, the expectation of rising food prices and a growing world demand for food are drivers in the rise of land grabs in the last years [4]. The growth in food demand will outpace population growth through a nutrition transition from staple foods towards a more animal product based consumption caused by income growth in developing countries.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Main agricultural drivers in land grabbing as of October 2016. Shares of project purposes for land grabbing projects with data available on the intended production output. Relatively few projects focus on mere food production. There are by far more investments focusing on non-food outputs that are to be used in industry, e.g. for biofuels, or flex-crops that can have industrial uses as well as being used in human nutrition, e.g. palm oil production [5].

Land grabbing is mainly concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa where weak customary land right protection is frequent. Moreover, yield gaps (the difference between the best potential yield using latest technology and breeds and the actual obtained yields) are biggest in these regions. Thus, there is potential to gain competitiveness for the investors through closing these yield gaps [2].

Many concerns surrounding land grabbing focus on the dispossession of customary owned land and the enclosure of commons. This type of community owned land is crucial for the livelihood of many indigenous smallholder farmers. Since there is a dual system of land ownership with customary ownership of local communities and formal state ownership of land in Sub-Saharan Africa local governments are not willing to deprive themselves from the ability to reallocate land rights and local leaders often fail to act in the interest of their community. Thus, land grabbing activities can endanger local communities when customary land rights are not recognized and land rights transfers are finalized involuntarily from the perspective of these communities [6].

Based on the results presented in the results page of the 2016 Marburg iGEM team, land grabbing could not entirely be offset by artificial endosymbiosis. Future projects can tackle biofuel related land grabbing. After establishing the endosymbiosis with a photosynthetically active cyanobacterium, projects should be located in areas with more intense solar radiation, thereby making use of sustainable energy sources. Since production would take place in industrial facilities, investments would not require a special quality of land and thus would not compete with food production on agricultural land. Research is likely to draw on existing infrastructure in developed countries while production could be located in countries having a favorable natural, political and administrative environment. In order to create employment opportunities and foster development, we suggest that a future project could be suitable for Sub-Saharan Africa, where solar radiation is higher than in most European countries.

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  1. [1] Borras Jr., Saturnino M., and Jennifer C. Franco. "Global Land Grabbing and Trajectories of Agrarian Change: A Preliminary Analysis." Journal of Agrarian Change 12.1 (2012): 34-59.
  2. [2] Deininger, Klaus, and Derek Byerlee. “Rising global interest in farmland: Can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits?” World Bank Publications, (2011).
  3. [3] IMF Primary Commodity Prices. International Monetary Fund (2016) Retrieved on 04 October 2016.
  4. [4] Cotula, Lorenzo, et al. “Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa”. IIED/FAO/IFAD, (2009).
  5. [5] Agricultural Drivers – LAND MATRIX. Land Matrix (2016). Retrieved on 10 October 2016.
  6. [6] Anseeuw, Ward, et al. "Transnational land deals for agriculture in the global South. Analytical Report based on the Land Matrix Database”. CDE/CIRAD/GIGA (2012).