“The debate on ‘land grabs’ and large-scale land acquisitions often concentrates on the resources that are extracted from the target country, particularly food that is produced in the acquired land and exported,” Cristina Rulli of Politecnico di Milano, Italy told environmentalresearchweb. “Quite surprisingly, we noticed that nobody had quantified the amount of food that can be produced in the acquired land.”

So Rulli and Paolo D’Odorico of the University of Virginia, US, set out to do just that, using data from the Land Matrix 2013 index and a range of values for crop yield. Prior to their purchase, land grabbed regions have often been farmed at subsistence levels, without investment in measures such as fertilizers and irrigation that could boost yield. Some argue that land grabs could increase food provision worldwide through investment in more effective agriculture.

The team found that, even without improvements in yield, the total area of land “grabbed” to date for agriculture could feed 190–370 million people. With closure of the yield gap – the difference in yield between traditional farming and industrialized agriculture – the same land could feed a total of 300–550 million people.

“The amount of food that can be produced in the acquired land is not negligible and would be sufficient to abate malnourishment in the target countries,” said Rulli. “Malnourishment can be due both to low food availability and limited access to food, which can be further reduced by the investors’ acquisition of agricultural lands.”

The countries most targeted for land acquisitions to date are Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the former Sudan. Together these nations account for roughly 82% of the food calories that could be produced by acquired croplands around the world, the team found.

“While there are some pros in the increase in agricultural production that could result from large-scale investments, some measures should be in place to ensure that the benefits are shared with the local populations,” write Rulli and D’Odorico in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

To carry out their study, the researchers examined land acquisitions of more than 200 hectares that took place after the year 2000. They used country-specific yields and considered yield gap closures of 50%, 75%, 90% and 100%.

“We use calories as a metric for the amount of food that can be produced without claiming that the same crops would necessarily be used to feed people,” said Rulli. “In fact, in some cases the collection of crops cultivated in the acquired land would result in an unlikely type of diet.”

According to Rulli there are still open questions that would help inform the debate, such as what happens to the food produced on acquired land, were the lands already used for agriculture before the acquisition and, if so, to cultivate which crops with what yields. “Answers to these questions would allow us to quantify the decrease in food available to the local communities, and come up with management strategies to mitigate possible negative impacts on the local communities of large-scale land acquisition,” she said.

The rate of large-scale land acquisitions peaked in 2009 but such transactions are still underway. Now Rulli and colleagues are analysing the spatial variability in crop yields within each country as well as the effects of climate change.

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