When Agriculture is Outsourced

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The Economist, that radical magazine, has produced an editorial and a long article about how rich countries in the Middle East and Asia are rapidly acquiring agricultural land--and the water rights that go with it--in impoverished developing countries in order to ensure food security for their own populations. The buyers are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Korea, China, and the like. The sellers? Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, and Pakistan.

If this sounds uncomfortably like colonialism revisited, it is for good reason. As The Economist so nicely puts it, while putting agricultural land to good use might help reduce Third World malnutrition, "these advantages cannot quell a nagging unease." From whence comes the unease? The deals raise questions about lack of transparency, government collusion, bargain prices, effects on local food markets, and who gets the benefits.

The Economist suggests the need for a dose of skepticism, not least because of the size of the purchases--an astonishing total of 15 to 20 million hectares so far (a hectare is about 2.5 acres). Advises The Economist: "defer judgment and keep a watchful, hopeful but wary eye" on the process.

This sounds optimistic to me. You?

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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