New wave of agricultural land-grabs reaches Canada

Published on Farmland, by Amy Miller, 27 September 2010.

MONTREAL—In an age of escalating food insecurity and financial uncertainty, large corporations, investors, and even nations states have been stalking the globe in pursuit of an age-old and certain commodity: farmland. Bought up on a large scale to secure food for cropstarved countries or to make a safe investment, farmland is becoming the lucrative prize of a new resource frontier. The sweep of agricultural land grabs has stripped small farmers in Africa, Latin America and Asia of control over vital tracts of fertile land. And quietly, these modern-day land marauders are coming to Canada—undermining family farms, compromising local food sovereignty, and harming the environment.

This past July the National Farmers Union (NFU) sounded the alarm. In a report entitled
Losing Our Grip: How a Corporate Farmland Buy-up, Rising Farm Debt, and Agribusiness Financing of Inputs Threaten Family Farms and Food Sovereignty,” the union documents how foreign ownership of farmland in Canada is no longer a theoretical fear. It’s happening.

Investor group Walton International is buying up farmland across Alberta and has now moved into Ontario, converting farmland into “development-ready property”—what critics say is a euphemism for development geared towards urban sprawl. According to its website, Walton “manages approximately 36,000 acres on behalf of over 35,000 investors worldwide” … //

… Michael Hoffort is a spokesperson from the agency and spoke with The Dominion regarding the NFU report.

“I wouldn’t say we are seeing a large amount of foreign investment coming towards farmland in Canada,” Hoffort said. “Often when it is a foreign investor, it is a farmer who is looking to immigrate into Canada, buy a farm and be a member of the community.”

But Farm Credit Canada has been very friendly to the largest Canadian farmland investment company Assiniboia, offering generous grants. The company has grown rapidly over the last two years, tripling its holdings to its current 100,000 acres.

Assiniboia’s primary source of capital is the taxpayer-owned Farm Credit Canada. In 2009, the company signed a mortgage agreement package that will see it receive an additional $9 million in borrowing capacity at “very low long-term rates,” according to an Assiniboia report.

When asked what data Farm Credit Canada has collected to compare how much foreign investment has been carried out over the last few years, Hoffort couldn’t give any figures.

“We haven’t done the analysis of crunching the numbers to find out how much farmland has been purchased domestically or by foreign buyers,” he said.

Hoffort explained that Farm Credit Canada only provides loans to applicants with a Canadian backer in the package, but he did not disclose what the percentage of the holding had to be Canadian.

“We lend to farms of all sizes,” he said. “The vast majority are family managed, and they come in many shapes and sizes. Farms in general have been growing in size for years—it is just part of the economy.”

Hoffort did have words to reassure the public. “Our focus is very much on agriculture, agricultural producers and the majority of those are by and large family farms. It has been in the past that way, and I can assure you that it will be that way in the future.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates there are currently over a billion people on the planet who suffer from hunger. The number continues to grow. 

Kuyek believes the new phenomenon of agricultural land grabs provides important lessons about the failure of the market, and the failure of the global food system.

“We must get food production back in the hands of small farmers, ensuring their livelihood and ensuring that people are fed from the food system and that it isn’t about profit,” he said.

The urgency will only grow as these problems are compounded by climate change.

“The question is not ‘what do we do with all this private sector interest in farming that has sprung up,’” he said, “but rather ‘how do we create a system of farming, how do we create a food system that actually feeds people.’” (full text).

(Amy Miller is a media maker and community organizer who resides in Montreal).

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