World Bank's new agriculture project threatens food security, warn experts

Agricultural ranking system could squeeze out small farmers and prioritise interests of foreign investors, say thinktanks

A World Bank pilot project designed to measure and improve agricultural productivity will jeopardise food security in developing countries and create a "one-size-fits-all model of development where corporations reign supremely", according to a coalition of thinktanks and NGOs.

An international campaign – Our Land; Our Business – is urging the Bank to abandon its Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (BBA) programme, claiming it will serve only to encourage corporate land grabs and undermine the smallholder farmers who produce 80% of the food consumed in the developing world.

The campaign, whose signatories include the US-based Oakland Institute thinktank and the Pan-African Institute for Consumer Citizenship and Development, argues that the Bank's attempts to adapt its ease-of-doing-business rankings to the agricultural sector will sow poverty "by putting the interests of foreign investors before those of locals".

The BBA was devised after the G8 asked the Bank to explore a doing business in agriculture index two years ago under the G8's controversial New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition programme.

BBA pilot schemes, which receive funding from the US development agency, USAid, the UK's Department for International Development (DfID), the Dutch and Danish governments and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are being trialled in 10 countries: Ethiopia, the Philippines, Guatemala, Rwanda, Morocco, Spain, Mozambique, Uganda, Nepal and Ukraine. Among the issues under investigation are access to seeds, fertiliser, mechanisation, finance, markets, transport and technology.

"Despite a language that claims concerns for small farmers, the goal of this new agriculture-focused ranking system is far too clear: [to] further open up countries' agriculture sectors to foreign corporations," the campaign said in a statement. "The doing business [rankings] give points to countries when they act in favour of 'ease of doing business'. This consists of smoothing the way for corporations' activity in the country by, for instance, cutting administrative procedures, lowering corporate taxes, removing environmental and social regulations or suppressing trade barriers."

The campaigners point to Liberia – where dozens of business reforms between 2008 and 2011 attracted considerable foreign direct investment that resulted in the corporate acquisition of more than 607,000 hectares in the space of a few years – and the Philippines, which shot 40 places up the doing business rankings between 2011 and 2014, and where foreigners last year acquired 5.2m hectares of land.

They say that squeezing out the small farmers, who often lack tenure security and government help yet still produce the overwhelming majority of food in developing nations, is not only unfair but also dangerous.

"It is time that the World Bank ceases to ignore that smallholders are the only future of an agriculture that can guarantee food security, ensure a sustainable use of natural resources and bring human development," the statement concludes. "We know far too well how damaging large-scale industrial farming is to the environment and the people. This model shall not be expanded to the developing word."

According to the World Bank Group, 9 billion people will need to be fed by 2050, meaning that global agricultural production will have to increase by at least 50%. Although the Bank acknowledges that the BBA is built around the doing business report, it insists its focus is different.

"For small-scale farmers to be more productive and far more competitive, they need access to land, finance, improved seed, fertiliser, water, electricity, transport and, above all, markets," a spokesman said. "By identifying and monitoring regulations and policies that are restricting the access of smaller scale farmers to these critical components of success, the BBA seeks to provide policy makers with a tool that can be used to develop an enabling environment for local and regional agribusiness."

He stressed that the BBA was still in its pilot phase, adding: "Neither data nor indicators have yet been published. As with all pilot projects by the World Bank Group, this phase is a period that enables dialogue with multi-stakeholders (including NGOs and CSOs), thorough research, and in-depth analysis."

The Gates Foundation declined to comment on the campaign. DfID was unavailable for comment at the time of going to press.

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Sam Jones

The GuardianTramp

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