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.


Sam Jones

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Philippine experts divided over climate change action

Scientists and farmers make competing claims for cutting-edge science and low-tech sustainable farming to tackle the issue

John Vidal in Mindanao

08, Apr, 2014 @11:23 AM

Article image
Food price rises pushing millions into extreme poverty, World Bank warns

The World Bank's food price index shows wheat, maize and soya costs have soared, requiring a relaxation of export controls and a rethink on biofuels

Phillip Inman, economics correspondent

14, Apr, 2011 @1:02 PM

Article image
Corporate stranglehold of farmland a risk to world food security, study says
Small farmers are being squeezed out as mega-farms and plantations gobble up their land

John Vidal

28, May, 2014 @3:02 PM

Food security: our daily bread | Editorial

Editorial: Scientists have tested a new strain of wheat that could increase yields in saline soils by 25%


12, Mar, 2012 @12:01 AM

Article image
Climate change will 'lead to battles for food', says head of World Bank

Jim Yong Kim urges campaigners and scientists to work together to form a coherent plan in the fight against climate change

Larry Elliott, economics editor

03, Apr, 2014 @8:02 PM

Article image
The food aid debate is a distraction

US policymakers love discussing it, but the debate on food aid reform is getting tedious. Emergency interventions will always be necessary, but it is time to shift our focus to long-term solutions, says Paul Guenette

Paul Guenette

17, Jun, 2013 @3:21 PM

Article image
Malawi's food safety threatened by contaminated groundnuts

Mark Tran: Fair trade NGO Twin is calling for urgent action after revealing 60% of groundnuts are not tested for potentially lethal aflatoxins

Mark Tran

10, Aug, 2012 @9:00 AM

Article image
World Bank warns of soaring food price dangers

A spike in global food prices has pushed millions more into poverty since last summer, said World Bank president Robert Zoellick

Larry Elliott, economics editor

15, Feb, 2011 @6:40 PM

Article image
Farming ideas to make a fortune: inside Brazil's food security festival
Agriculture startups from around the world gathered at a vibrant conference sponsored by pesticide manufacturer

Dom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

14, Aug, 2018 @12:02 PM

Article image
World Bank: high food prices block millennium development goals

Andrew Mitchell, the development secretary, says the UK would help more than 60 million people get access to cleaner water over the course of the this parliament

Larry Elliott in Washington

20, Apr, 2012 @7:34 PM