An act as cruel, unconscionable and pointless as any in human history is unfolding in every country, developed or developing, on Earth.
Over the next two generations it will drive more than a billion people off land they have worked for generations, obliterating their livelihoods, their family heritage, their homes, their communities, their landscapes, their self-respect and skills. It will send them to swell the voiceless ranks of the urban poor in the bloating megacities.
In an echo of events which propelled the English enclosure of the commons, the Scottish Highland clearances, the Irish famine and America's 'Grapes of Wrath' farm evictions, the overwhelming might of big money and the food industry is being turned loose on rural humanity as never before in world history.
Because its effects are distributed globally and felt chiefly in rural areas, the growing flood of farmers and their families leaving the land has attracted little attention or sympathy. It is largely unseen – by governments, by urban societies divorced from their food sources, or by the media – for the enormous human tragedy which it is, nor for the scale to which it could grow.
In the West, farmers have been quitting the land for a long time, as technology improved productivity and as the prices they received for their produce fell by a constant 1-2 per cent a year. For example, when I first began reporting on rural matters, in the early 1970s, there were 19,600 dairy farmers in Australia. Today the number is about 3,200 and shrinks by several each week as our supermarket duopoly screws down their incomes, making it ever-harder for the remainder to survive.
In 18th century England and Scotland, 19th century Ireland and 20th century America and Australia the forces which expelled people from their lands were, broadly, the power of wealthy land owners and very low farm incomes. Not much has changed in the 21st century, with a dozen or so enormous global supermarket and food corporations competing to drive farm prices as low as they possibly can in the name of 'cheap food', and an ugly land grab taking place across the world by corporate investors fleeing crumbling money markets, transnational agrifood corporates, Arab oil states, Chinese and Asian companies, superannuation trusts and other miscellaneous speculators attracted by the comparative buoyancy of farm land values as global food supplies tighten.
The scale of the land grab has been estimated by the World Bank (2011) at 56 million hectares a year. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates around US$20-30 billion is now spent on foreign acquisitions of farmland globally each year.
The US-based Oakland Institute comments "Rapid acquisitions of crucial food-producing lands by foreign private entities pose a threat to rural economies and livelihoods, land reform agendas, and other efforts aimed at making access to food more equitable and ensuring the human right to food for all. There is a dangerous disconnect between increasing investment in agriculture through rich countries taking over land in poor countries and the goal of securing food supplies for poor and vulnerable populations."
While most of the grabbing has taken place in Africa, where a lack of documented land titles make it as easy for foreign investors to sweep away local landholders as it was for landlords to dispossess Scottish crofters or Catholic Irish farmers two centuries ago, the phenomenon of foreign land acquisition is taking place worldwide – throughout Asia and in countries such as Australia and New Zealand as concern over food security and the prospect of high prices grows. When land is acquired by corporate actors – legally or otherwise – a small percentage of original owners may be retained as wages employees at the beck of their new masters. The majority are simply displaced, without support or compensation in many cases.
The flipside to this is that even farmers with secure land title are being thrown out of agriculture by a remorseless cost-price squeeze caused by the globalisation of economic power in the food and farm supply industries. Last century farmers had many choices about where to sell their produce but with concentration and takeovers in the supermarket, grain and processed food sectors, vast integrated corporate empires, near-monopolies in many cases, have arisen. By competing amongst themselves these giants force the price to the farmer inexorably downward, while farm input suppliers drive up the price of fertilisers, machinery, seed, fuel, chemicals and other inputs.
Millions of farmers worldwide, ground between these corporate millstones now have little alternative other than to sell up or walk off or, in the case of Indian farmers, to kill themselves. The same pressures threaten thousands of Australian farmers and their families, as the competition between agribusiness firms intensifies, and as they source their supplies from the cheapest place they can find worldwide, increasing our dependence on imported food.
Farmers in all continents report that the young are leaving the land, and the average age of farmers is now in the 60s. There is truth in this – young people, smart enough to see what is being done to their parents, are fleeing to the cities before it happens to them. Parents, demoralised by the incessant grinding are telling them to go, and get a life elsewhere. Bit by bit the world's food production expertise, wisdom and knowhow is being dismantled – while food insecurity looms.
The clearances of England, Scotland and Ireland that peopled the New World were justified at the time in the name of economic efficiency, regardless of their inhumanity. Today the same justification is being trotted out to justify American, Arab or Chinese investments in Africa, or the need of huge transnational food firms to pay the farmer ever less for milk, meat, grain, fruit or vegetables. But economics measures short-term monetary factors – turning a blind eye to human suffering, loss of skills, loss of soil, water, rural landscapes and communities, declining food quality, growing welfare impacts and their social and political results: the real costs.
If the process of industrialising, corporatising and globalising the food chain proceeds to its logical conclusion, without restraint or correction, it will displace up to 1.5 billion of the world's 1.8 billion farming families – one human being in five – by mid century, an act on such a scale that no-one appears to have considered the consequences.
It is time for the world to reconsider its responsibility to the people who really feed us, before we again perpetrate one of the greatest injustices in the history of so-called civilisation.