Arable Land, the new gold rush

Reading time 11 min.

Saudi Arabia has no permanent rivers or lakes. Rainfall is low and unreliable. Cereals can be cultivated only through expensive projects that deplete underground reservoirs. Dairy cattle must be cooled with fans and machines that spray them with water mists. This is not, in short, a nation that would normally be associated with large-scale agriculture.

By Javier Blas and Andrew England

But that could be about to change. Boosted by revenues from the oil boom and concerned about food security, the kingdom is scouring the globe for fertile lands in a search that has taken Saudi officials to Sudan, Ukraine, Pakistan and Thailand.

Their plan is to set up large-scale projects overseas that will later involve the private sector in growing crops such as corn, wheat and rice. Once a country has been selected, each project could be in excess of 100,000 hectares – about 10 times the size of Manhattan island – and the majority of the crop would be exported back, officials say.

Enough Oil, now Food

While Saudi Arabia’s plans are among the grandest, they reflect growing interest in such projects among capital-rich countries that import most of their food. The United Arab Emirates is looking into Kazakhstan and Sudan, Libya is hoping to lease farms in Ukraine and South Korea has hinted at plans in Mongolia. Even China – with plenty of cultivable land but not a lot of water – is exploring investments in south-east Asia.

“This is a new trend within the global food crisis,” says Joachim von Braun, director of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute. “The dominant force today is security of food supplies.”

Alarmed by exporting countries’ trade restrictions – such as India’s curbs on exports of rice, Ukraine’s halt to wheat shipments and Argentina’s imposition of heavy taxes on overseas sales of soya – importing countries have realised that their dependence on the international food market makes them vulnerable not only to an abrupt surge in prices but, more crucially, to an interruption in supplies.

As a result, food security is at the top of the political agenda for the first time since the 1970s. “The food crisis gave alarms for all countries to look for places to secure supplies of agricultural goods,” says Abdullah al-Obaid, the deputy minister of agriculture in Saudi Arabia.

Importers nervous

Mr von Braun, echoing the opinion of dozens of other officials interviewed by the Financial Times, says that faith in the international food market is waning. For the first time since the early 1990s, when trade in farm products rose sharply, many are starting to doubt the wisdom of depending on agricultural imports. “The importers are nervous and they have realised that they [had] better have a stake in countries with potential for agriculture exports,” he says.

With global food consumption rising, largely due to demand for a meat-rich diet in emerging economies, the challenge of feeding booming populations in countries such as Saudi Arabia is growing by the year. Cereal prices have come off their highs of earlier this year but are still more than three times their average over the past decade.

Food security is firmly behind every plan to invest in agriculture overseas. During a recent tour of central Asia, Khalifa bin Zayed, the UAE president, pointed to the need to lock in supplies. “The UAE is looking at implementing some agricultural projects in Kazakhstan as part of its efforts to develop stable food sources for its needs,” he said.

For countries rich in cultivable land and water but short of capital, such plans could also make a lot of sense. Wheat fields in Ukraine, for example, yield less than 3,000kg a hectare in spite of some of the world’s most fertile soils and abundant rain. That is well below the US’s yield of about 6,500kg a hectare, achieved in less optimal conditions. But more tractors, a lot more fertiliser, better techniques and higher-yielding seeds could change the situation.

Lennart Båge, president of the United Nations’ International Fund for Agriculture Development in Rome, says that land was long thought less important than oil or mineral deposits. “But now fertile land with access to water has become a strategic asset,” he says.

Sudan and Ethiopia

Some countries have grasped the potential of this resource. Sudan, for example, is seeking to attract at least $1bn (€680m, £540m) of capital for its agricultural sector from Arab and Asian investment groups. The investment ministry is marketing 17 large-scale projects that would cover an area of 880,000 hectares.

Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, is also enthusiastic. After welcoming a Saudi agriculture delegation a fortnight ago, he said: “We told them [the Saudis] that we would be very eager to provide hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land for investment.”

Yet such deals are likely to come at a heavy price for food-producing countries. Through secretive bilateral agreements, the investors hope to be able to bypass any potential trade restriction that the host country might impose during a crisis.


For some policymakers, this evokes the nightmare scenario of crops being transported out of fortified farms as hungry locals look on – although whether vast tracts could be defended in the manner of, say, oil installations, is open to question. Others point out that the scramble for land is taking place in countries with weak legal environments, where most farmers lack formal tenure rights or access to compensation mechanisms.

Supporters of free trade in agriculture are also worried by what they consider to be attempts to build ownership of food production rather than increase supply to the international market. Ed Schafer, US agriculture secretary, says he would be concerned if the investments were simply a means to “bypass the international market and global trade agreements”.

European agriculture officials add that the poorest food-deficit countries, such as those in west Africa, would suffer most: unable to invest overseas, they would also be most vulnerable to rising prices in a diminished international market.

WB and FAO not too eager

Multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, which initially encouraged foreign investment in agriculture as a way to boost global output, are moderating their previous support.

The change is clearly seen in the posture of Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, who initially described state-led foreign investment as a “win-win venture” ’. Now a spokesperson for the bank says: “This is a situation that could bring real benefits to people in some developing countries, but to be sustainable, land purchase or lease arrangements must benefit, and be seen to benefit, all parties including citizens of the host country, local communities and investors.”


A similar shift can be observed in Jacques Diouf, director-general at the FAO. He initially called for “joint-venture agreements between, on the one hand, those countries that have the financial resources and, on the other, those that possess land, water and human resources”.

But now he is warning of the risk of a “neo-colonial” agricultural system. “Some negotiations [between host countries and the investors] have led to unequal international relations and short-term mercantilist agriculture,” says Mr Diouf.

Mr Båge also agrees there could be problems. “We are talking about some host countries where there is widespread poverty and hunger, and we must ensure that the local populations share fully in the benefits of these initiatives.”

For example, in Sudan – one country targeted by almost all Gulf investors – the World Food Programme, the UN agency that deals with food emergencies, is feeding 5.6m people. If the investment plans go ahead, Sudan, perversely, could be exporting to rich nations while its own population suffers.

Chinese weigh risks

Chinese officials, who supported Beijing’s expansive policy to secure commodities such as oil and metals in Africa, seem aware of the potential dangers. Although Beijing has explored deals in the Philippines and Laos, and has also developed some small projects in Africa – mostly “demonstration” farms that educate locals in farming techniques – it appears to have little appetite for large-scale investment in agriculture overseas.

“There are so many people starving in Africa,” says Xie Guoli, a trade official at the Chinese ministry of agriculture. “Can you ship the grain back to China? The cost will be very high, as well as the risk.”

Nevertheless, some Chinese private-sector companies are looking at investing in farmland, although officials say that they are focusing on central Asia rather than Africa. Beijing seems more relaxed about the potential for conflict in countries such as Kazakhstan, where the transportation costs would also be lower.

United Nations agriculture and food aid officials are also worried about the potential for corruption, given the weakness of governance in many African and central Asian countries.

They suggest the investments should be governed by a framework similar in scope to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a scheme that obliges resource-rich countries to publish company payments and government revenues from oil, gas and mining.

The EITI has helped to tackle corruption in the oil and minerals sector, officials say. But a similar scheme for agriculture could take months of negotiations – and food-deficit countries are in a hurry. As western officials discuss risks and safeguards, Saudi Arabia and others appear to want to lease land ahead of the next planting season.

Additional reporting by Barney Jopson in Addis Ababa

Past failures temper hopes for Sudan

As oil-rich Gulf states hunt for overseas land to set up agricultural projects it should come as no surprise that their attention turns towards Sudan, writes Andrew England.

As Africa’s largest country, it has vast tracts of land. The White Nile and the Blue Nile, which cross into Sudan from Uganda and Ethiopia respectively – before joining in Khartoum to form the Nile proper – provide plentiful water for irrigation. Sudan is a member of the 22-nation Arab League, Arabic is its lingua franca, and the country sits just across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s most populous state.

But putting any plans into practice will throw up a host of hurdles. In spite of being an oil producer since 1999, Sudan is impoverished and hugely underdeveloped, the result of decades of conflict and government mismanagement.

The quality of roads, for example, will determine how easily producers can transport their harvests from rural areas to ports. In 2003, the World Bank estimated that just 6,240km of Sudan’s 55,000km of roads were tarmacked. And in Sudan and other countries on Gulf states’ radar, investors will have to take on the risks of political instability, corruption and dealing with inefficient bureaucracies.

Previous attempts by Arab states to involve Sudan in solving their food problems have shown just how easily the grandest of visions can end in failure.

Sudan, Crossing a shallow river

During the oil boom of the 1970s, governments joined forces to set up the Arab Authority for Agriculture Investment and Development, with headquarters in Khartoum. The agency’s objectives included contributing to Arab food security.

Most of its projects were to be focused in Sudan, but officials say they achieved little because of a combination of poor management, insufficient financing and regional politics.

“[The AAAID] was sitting here doing nothing,” says Abdul-Rahim Hamdi, a former Sudanese finance minister. “The history of the AAAID was the history of bureaucracy, general managers who didn’t want to do anything or [who wanted] to keep their offices outside of Sudan, and so it did very little.”

Sudan’s relations with its Arab neighbours deteriorated in the 1990s because of the Islamic regime’s support for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, its willingness to host Osama bin Laden and his followers and accusations that it was involved in the 1995 assassination attempt on Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president.

Relations have since improved, but the Darfur conflict continues to destablise Sudan, while Omar al-Bashir, the country’s president, is the first sitting head of state to be indicted for genocide by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

Still, Mr Hamdi is optimistic, arguing that the needs of food importers will outweigh any political considerations.

He adds that projects currently being discussed will differ from those of the 1970s and 1980s because they will involve bilateral government agreements and greater input from the private sector.

Under Saudi Arabia’s plans, for example, Riyadh hopes it will act as a facilitator for overseas projects, with bilateral agreements to protect investments and to agree on what percentage of produce would be exported back to the kingdom. But it will be looking to the Saudi private sector to invest in and run any schemes. That could create its own set of problems.

“Convincing the private sector is not going to be easy,” says an analyst based in Saudi Arabia. “Some of these countries are extremely corrupt . . . and will they have the political will to improve their infrastructures?”

“It’s not easy to tell another country to build roads because we want to export things.”

The Financial Times

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