When the Nile Runs Dry*
A new scramble for Africa is under way. As global food prices rise and exporters reduce shipments of commodities, countries that rely on imported grain are panicking. Affluent countries like Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China and India have descended on fertile plains across the African continent, acquiring huge tracts of land to produce wheat, rice and corn for consumption back home.
Some of these land acquisitions are enormous. South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, has acquired 1.7 million acres in Sudan to grow wheat—an area twice the size of Rhode Island. In Ethiopia, a Saudi firm has leased 25,000 acres to grow rice, with the option of expanding this to 750,000 acres. And India has leased several hundred thousand acres there to grow corn, rice and other crops.
These land grabs shrink the food supply in famine-prone African nations and anger local farmers, who see their governments selling their ancestral lands to foreigners. They also pose a grave threat to Africa’s newest democracy: Egypt.
Egypt is a nation of bread eaters. Its citizens consume 18 million tons of wheat annually, more than half of which comes from abroad. (See data.) Egypt is now the world’s leading wheat importer, and subsidized bread—for which the government doles out approximately $2 billion per year—is seen as an entitlement by the 60 percent or so of Egyptian families who depend on it.
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Lester R. Brown is President of the Earth Policy Institute and author of "World on the Edge."
Copyright © 2011 Earth Policy Institute
*NOTE: A version of this piece appeared in the New York Times’ Op-Ed section on June 2, 2011.