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The New Food Colonialism

September 15, 2010

Asparagus farming in Peru

The New Food Colonialism is already upon us, although it exists in a kind of parallel universe far away from public view, and far away from employment and environmental regulation. In the 21st century, food has become the new oil and water is an increasingly scarce resource.

In general this involves wealthy countries such as the US, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia taking out long leases on land in the developing world (currently Africa, South American and Asia), redirecting and buying up essential resources (mainly water) to grow crops for the developed world. Why do they need to do this? Because they have ruined their own land through the intensive agricultural practices of the last 40 years and what’s left is expensive. China has only 9% of the world’s arable land to feed 20% of the world’s population. Enormously wealthy Saudi Arabia grows rice for its own population in hunger-striken Ethiopia. In extreme cases countries buy up land for biofuel crops in countries where a large proportion of the population are starving.

In a world facing rises in population and food prices this makes sense from an investment point of view, but is short-termist and disastrous for those living in developing countries as it destroys livelihoods and causes food shortages. The US can just move on to the next patch of land once it has depleted an area entirely, but for that country’s population they are left with unusable land: soil depletion and a much reduced water table level.

Map of trading land (from Der Spiegal)

This is all rather sinister and makes for chilling reading. But you could argue that we all collude in the exploitation of other countries in our desire for out-of-season produce and for unsustainably cheap food. This might seem less significant than the major land-grabs going on at the moment, but the effects can still be catastrophic. A simple packet of (over-priced) out-of-season asparagus tossed onto a contact grill destined for a salad, is part of a bigger story of the continued exploitation of the developed world by the rich northern hemisphere countries, made possible by globalization.


This week my teenage son has to write about globalization for his economics GCSE homework. So out comes the Globalization VSI (Very Short Introductions series – I used to commission this series- it’s great for quick but serious information) and a variety of information is gathered from the web. I know that food provides many good examples of the issues involved in the impact of globalization in the developing world, but hadn’t reckoned on such a wonderful article landing in my lap at the very time I (my son) needed it.

Felicity Lawrence – a dedicated investigator of many of the problems associated with modern food production – wrote about the Peruvian asparagus industry for The Guardian, highlighting the serious depletion of water supplies that this has caused.

Not only does this raise issues of food miles, but far more seriously for Peruvians, it is the cause of a drop in the water table level of 8 metres a year in some places. this leaves small-scale farmers and the local population with little water and has seen the introduction of water rationing: all so you can eat asparagus from July-April.

Politically, this relatively new industry set up with World Bank loans, is good news: it has created 10,000 new jobs (but relatively low-paid ones where a worker gets 27p per kilo picked for a crop which retails for about £8 per kilo in UK supermarkets); it has also increased export trade income for Peru.

A new report by Nick Hepworth (for the development charity, Progressio) accuses supermarkets and the World Bank of failing to properly assess the impact of this new industry on Peru’s water resources. The large-scale export farms were allowed to buy up the rights to water supplies, while wells used by small-scale farmers and ordinary people in the area most affected, the Ica Valley, have dried up despite drilling further down.

Food for export is an obvious way for developing countries to improve their economic situation but this needs to be sustainable and the income and benefits need to end up in the right hands.

Read The Rough Guide to Food for more background on this subject, agricultural sustainability, food politics, and Fair Trade.

Also for information and tips on how to shop locally and seasonally.

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