Saudi Arabia and Bunge buy 50.1% Stake in former Canadian Wheat Board

This is quite big and exactly the kind of trade oriented investment in the value chains of developed agro markets that I have anticipated in the conclusion of Oil for Food.

Saudi government owned company SALIC teams up with international grain trader giant Bunge to buy a 50.1% stake in the former Canadian Wheat Board, which the Canadian government has now privatized. The other 49.9% will be owned by Canadian farmers.

SALIC was founded in 2012 in the wake of the King Abdullah Initiative for Agricultural Investments Abroad (KAISAIA).

I would expect more of this kind of investment rather than the widely publicized land investments in food insecure developing countries that have made media headlines, but have often not been implemented.

Martin Keulertz and I are dealing with the aspect of food trading companies and value chain investments in a forthcoming article in the fall issue of International Development Policy.

Tropical Agriculture and MENA Food Imports: Conference Summary

TROPICAL AGRICULTURE AS “LAST FRONTIER”?

Food Import Needs of the Middle East and North Africa, Ecological Risks and New Dimensions of South-South Cooperation with Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia

Barcelona, 29-30 January 2015

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is one of the most water-stressed regions in the world and its largest net-importer of cereals. Affordable food imports are crucial for its future food security. Countries with tropical agriculture like Brazil are playing an increasing role in MENA food supplies. Apart from policy options to sustainably intensify regional agricultural production, trade will play a crucial role for MENA economies to achieve food security.

‪Given the environmental value and sensitivity of tropical ecosystems sustainable intensification in countries like Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia is crucial. For this reason, King’s College London (KCL), the OCP Policy Center, the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), the Getulyo Vargas Foundation and Wageningen University organized a conference on Tropical Agriculture as ‘Last Frontier’? Food Import Needs of the Middle East and North Africa, Ecological Risks and New Dimensions of South-South Cooperation with Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia”.

The conference was held on 29-30 January 2015 at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs (CIDOB). It provided an interdisciplinary perspective on how …. (for more)

Update on Economic Issues of ISIS

Germany’s largest weekly Die Zeit has run a feature on the lack of economic sustainability of ISIS that has also been translated into English. It quotes my earlier policy brief of October: How Long Will ISIS Last Economically? and shares its conclusion that the ISIS economy is based on looting and far from self-sustaining.

Meanwhile the UN has estimated that ISIS had revenues from ransoms of $35-45 million in 2013. Revenues from such ransoms have likely decreased as I have argued, as Western journalists and aid workers have been deterred from traveling to the region and local hostages fetch lower prices.

The Die Zeit feature in fact points out that hostage taking has increasingly targeted the local population. Prices for local hostages ($20k-50k) are considerably below those for western hostages ($3-5mn).

In October David Cohen, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the US Treasury Department, estimated the ISIS income from oil at $1mn per day with a declining tendency. He also saw the revenues from ransoms reduced at $20 mn in 2014.

Cracks of ISIS’ Ponzi scheme of looting have already started to appear. Prices for meat, eggs and vegetables have doubled and tripled in some cases.  Defections of senior ISIS officials have been partly attributed to economic problems of the organization.

ISIS tried a publicity stunt when it announced its intention to introduce its own currency based on gold, silver and copper (sic) coins. Even if it managed to loot enough precious metals to issue such a currency it would likely face Gresham’s Law and the challenges of maintaining realistic exchange rates within a bimetallic currency, not to mention a tri-metallic one.

Yet ISIS is not the only organization with economic problems in Iraq: The government in Baghdad faces severe funding shortages as oil prices have declined while it needs to ramp up expenditure to rebuild its military capacities (if they ever existed given 50k “ghost soldiers” who only existed on payrolls).

The Iraqi government also continuously grapples with corruption: The Grain board chief was sacked because of a spoiled rice shipment, only to be replaced by his predecessor who took kick backs in 2009.

Commodities Trade in the Atlantic Space

I have just returned from the Atlantic Dialogues conference 2014 that has been organized by the German Marshall Fund and the OCP Policy Center.

In terms of food security issues it was quite interesting that considerable know-how transfer is taking place between Brazil and Sub-Saharan Africa and that Morocco tries to position itself as fertilizer provider of choice to both agricultural regions. (On this issue also see my recent article in Third World Quarterly about Mining Strategies in the MENA).

The Atlantic Dialogues conference is in its third year now and adds a south-south dimension to the notion of Atlantic Space. This year a conference volume has been published that can be downloaded here.

This chart in my article about the transatlantic trade in agricultural and mineral commodities highlights some interesting facts.

The following conclusions can be drawn for the transatlantic trade in commodities:

  • Mineral fuels dominate the global trade of commodities, the Atlantic Space is no exception.
  • No country in the word is energy independent. There is a varied trade of refined products besides the trade in mineral fuels. Some crude oil exporters like Nigeria, Angola, Mexico, and Brazil are net importers of such refined products. Net importers of crude oil like the United States and the EU, on the other hand, are net exporters of refined petroleum products.
  • China has developed into a major importer of mineral fuels, oil seeds, ores, and precious metals from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America. Yet despite this widely publicized rise of China, the Atlantic trade in commodities is still a dominant factor in global comparison.
  • The transatlantic trade ties in commodities are particularly close between North America and LAC, on the one hand and between Europe and Africa on the other hand. Trading relations between North America and Africa and between the EU and LAC are also substantial. The focus of this North-South trade is on mineral fuels, ores, precious metals, oil seeds, and tropical agricultural products like cocoa, coffee, and fruit. There is not only a lively trade of refined products from North America and the EU to Africa and LAC, but also between the two northern blocs of the Atlantic Space.
  • In comparison, South-South trading relations lag behind in the Atlantic Space. However, because of its underdeveloped agricultural potential, Africa is a major importer of cereals and sugars, which partly come from LAC, and Morocco has developed into a major supplier of fertilizers to Brazil.

A Sheikh, Ethiopia and Pitfalls of Journalism

“Last year, Al Amoudi, whom most Ethiopians call the Sheikh, exported a million tons of rice, about seventy pounds for every Saudi citizen.” This is the remarkable claim of Frederick Kaufman in an article in Harper’s Magazine about the agro-investment of the Saudi billionaire in Ethiopia’s Gambela province.

Mr. Kaufman calls it “the great grain robbery” and alludes to the namesake event in 1972 when the Soviet Union appeared as a large buyer of US grains for its livestock program, bidding up prices to the ire of American consumers.

To put it into perspective: one pound of rice gives about five servings, so 70 pounds make 350 servings. Every Saudi eats a bowl of Ethiopian rice each day according to Mr. Kaufman!

Saudi Arabia imported 1.3 million tons of rice in the trade year 2013/14 according to the US Department of Agriculture and does not have domestic production. This would mean that Ethiopia accounted for the large majority of Saudi rice consumption. As rice constitutes 11 per cent of the calorie intake of Saudis according to the FAO it would also mean that Ethiopia has provided almost a tenth of Saudi Arabia’s dietary needs! An astonishing feat for a country that was the largest food aid recipients of the World Food Program (WFP) in 2012. If true, it would be alarming.

Alas, it does not show in the trade statistics. The PSD database of the US Department of Agriculture has no record of Ethiopian rice exports whatsoever. The COMTRADE based Trade Map database of the International Trade Center not really: In 2012 it reports Ethiopian rice sales of $4,000 to Saudi Arabia out of total exports of $5,000. That is virtually nothing.

Mr. Kaufman does not share the source for his 1 million ton claim. Unfortunately for him, almost three quarters of Saudi rice imports come from India and another 10 percent from Pakistan according to the Trade Map statistics. South Asia is where basmati rice is mainly grown, which the Saudis prefer over the sticky white rice that is grown in South-East Asia and the US. This preference is also why Al Amoudi has tried to introduce basmati cultivation in Ethiopia with the help of Pakistani experts and foremen.

Cereal yields in Ethiopia are around 2 tons per hectare according to the World Bank, on the higher end compared with most other African countries, but considerably below Thailand (3.1 tons) the US (5.9 tons) or Vietnam (5.5 tons). As Al Amoudi has just started his project and is introducing a new crop it is unlikely that he can produce very much above the national average. This would mean that the production of 1 million tons of rice in Ethiopia would require 500,000 hectares of land.

Al Amoudi has a lease for 10,000 hectares. Mr. Kaufman does not tell us from where Al Amoudi might have gotten the other 490,000 hectares. Not to mention that Al Amoudi has considerable production problems and it is unclear at this stage whether his project will succeed.

Mr. Kaufman also does not share with us how Al Amoudi managed to get 1 million tons of rice out of Gambela, a remote province with poor infrastructure and far away from any port. The Indian investor Karuturi who launched farming operations in Gambela as well and is now in serious economic trouble mulled exporting cereals with barges via South Sudan, a very unlikely scenario given the current civil war there. Mr. Kaufman himself describes dirt roads that start right after the airport in Gambela; he also speaks of “pilot rice paddies” without suggesting how one would be able to produce 1 million tons of rice with such limited operations.

In case it has not become clear by now: Mr. Kaufman’s central claim of 1 million tons of Ethiopian rice exports to Saudi Arabia is certifiably bogus. Harper’s does not seem to have a fact-checking department, which is rather surprising for a magazine of that size.

Mr. Kaufman says hat “the terms of the deal have never been released.” This is not exactly true as the lease agreement of September 2009 was posted on a website of the Ethiopian government before taken offline in 2012. For convenience I post it here.

For a 50-year lease of 10,000 ha of land Saudi Star pays 300,000 Ethiopian Birr annually. This is currently equivalent to just $15,321 and the contract does not even make stipulations for inflation adjustment. Al Amoudi has announced that he intends to lease an additional 290,000 ha from the Ethiopian government, but so far 10,000 hectares is what he’s got, to the best of my knowledge.

So with $1.53 per hectare the lease terms are even better than the $7 of Mr. Kaufman’s estimate and considerably lower than the $1,250 per year and hectare that he mentions for Zambia. Zambia is a more mature agricultural market with export outlets towards South Africa, so its land prices should be higher, but Mr. Kaufman is right to wonder how such lease terms come about and whether political backroom deals might have something to do with it.

He has apparently been in the country, if only for a few days, he has met with decision makers and he has visited Al Amoudi’s Saudi Star project. There have been indeed problems on the project as the killing of Pakistani foremen has shown and Ethiopia’s strategy of Agricultural Development Led Industrialization (ADLI) has been accompanied by grievances and state led resettlements as I point out in Oil for Food.

Mr. Kaufman had a unique chance to tell us something about such problems at the crossroads of subsistence lifestyles, development ambitions, foreign direct investment, political conflict and influence trading. Unfortunately he didn’t. He chose to make bogus claims and tell us a land grab story that is sexy and sells. After all Saudis are authoritarian, religious fanatics who do not let their women drive. Isn’t it perfectly logical to add a neo-colonial land grab to that list? And isn’t that what the reader wants to hear? Including unverified rumors about Mr. Al Amoudi’s alcohol intake, Al Qaeda financing and predatory attitudes of his men?

When reading the article one cannot escape the impression that this is neither a story about Al Amoudi, nor about disenfranchised Ethiopians, but about the author himself – an intrepid Indiana Jones who takes the reader by the hand on a journalistic hit and run mission to the dark heart of Africa. To beef up his credentials, Orientalisms are dropped and suggestive language is used without serving any obvious analytical purpose.

Based on a second hand account he refers to locals who live “in picturesque villages, undisturbed by modernity”, all the while Gambela is increasingly affected by a rather modern civil war in neighboring South Sudan. Corresponding refugee flows are shortly mentioned in a footnote. At no point one gets an idea about the local population and how it has been affected by the Saudi Star project. Mr. Kaufman has apparently not interacted with them. Meanwhile he suggests that the Saudi Star compound with its white barracks and satellite dishes seems to belong to a “Bond villain.” Our hero has to face down “fat black beetles” that attempt to crawl in his bed while spending the night there, remarkably on the invitation of the men of the very “Bond villain.” (It also would appear to me that the villains in Bond movies usually have more assuming residences than white barracks).

Al Amoudi was born in Ethiopia to an Ethiopian mother and a Saudi father and later migrated to Saudi Arabia where he made his money. To call him a “billionaire from Ethiopia” obscures more than it illuminates and it would have been interesting to learn more about Saudi-Ethiopian relations and what role Al Amoudi plays in them. Instead, we jump from Alexander the Great’s quest for the Nile sources to Ethiopia “the khat capital of the world”, only to end up again with Al Amoudi, who is termed a “whisky drinking marauder”, like all the folks of international organizations who hang out at the bar of the Sheraton in Addis, which he owns.

In short, another piece of sensationalist journalism and a disservice to a more sober and credible discussion about land grabs and associated development challenges.

Chinese Agro-Investments in Africa

Last month I was at a conference about Chinese agro investments in Africa at SAIS/ Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

Deborah Brautigam differentiated five types of such investments: 1) media myths and false reports; 2) former aid projects that have now been privatized; 3) construction contracts; 4) government projects that were launched more than a decade ago; and 5) real, current projects.

There are only a few current projects in the category 5) and they target food production for the domestic African market, not for export to China, which would not make commercial sense for logistical reasons.

Like in the case of the Gulf countries there is a certain disconnect with media reports and their inflated numbers about land grabs.

That having said China has recently shown strong interest in food related investments, but they have focused on the trading and food processing sectors with a view of improving food safety and catering to the increasingly diverse diets of the Chinese population.

Among such investments have been Tnuva, the Israeli cheese and consumer foods supplier, US pork producer Smithfield Foods, the UK breakfast brand Weetabix and Australian winemaker Hollick. Chinese grain trader COFCO has recently spent $1.5bn on a stake in a sugar, soyabean and wheat joint venture with Hing Kong based Noble Group.

It seems that China prepares to compete with the Cargills and Nestlés of this world rather than directly gobbling up farmland in the upstream sector. There are some large food processing companies in the Gulf that operate internationally like Kuwait based Americana. Gulf countries have also shown a similar, if more subdued interest in trading companies as I describe in Oil for Food, but compared with China they have arguably less capacities to realize such strategies.

Reply to Thoughtful Review of Oil for Food in the Middle East Journal

Jane Harrigan has given a thoughtful critique of Oil for Food in the Middle East Journal, Vol. 68, Issue 1, 2014. She outlines the historical part with the critical supply situation during World War II, the food weapon, the modernization of agriculture in the postwar years and the political economy of food in the Gulf countries. While she deems these parts and the depiction of the failed Sudan breadbasket strategy “fascinating”, she objects to my  “sanguine” account of current Gulf agro-investments.

As I describe the Sudan breadbasket episode of the 1970s as an unmitigated disaster and use it as a cautionary tale for current Gulf endeavors this is not immediately obvious.

Harrigan acknowledges that I acknowledge important concerns in the land grab debate like the threat of disenfranchisement of customary land rights’ holders and limited employment benefits. However she would have liked to see a more extensive discussion of these aspects.

She objects in particular to my sub-chapter “A land grab that wasn’t“ in which I use field work in the Gulf countries and the Sudan to point out that there is a huge disconnect between media reports about land grabs and actual implementation on the ground. I further argue that such misconceptions have sometimes been amplified by well meaning reports of advocacy groups, among them the first version of the Land Matrix by the International Land Coalition (ILC) and a number of think tanks that has used such media reports as data source (p. 144f).

Harrigan does not discuss this criticism of mine or marshals evidence to the contrary. But she argues unperturbed that “ample evidence is now available, especially from the International Land Coalition’s work,” about the threat of foreign agro-investments.

I do not dispute this threat in qualitative terms and discuss it as far as it has materialized, like in Sudan in the 1970s, on some of the Sudanese projects today (e.g. the Merowe Dam) or on the Saudi Star project of Saudi billionaire Al-Amoudi in Ethiopia.

Yet in quantitative terms the threat has been exaggerated as I outline in said sub-chapter, certainly for the Gulf countries, but also for China as the works of Deborah Brautigam and Rural Modernity have shown.

So in a way Harrigan is blaming me for not parroting media reports. It would be better to either hold those accountable who have used them uncritically or show empirical evidence of Gulf agro-investments with said effects that I have failed to mention.

In fact, the ILC and its partners have revised the Land Matrix considerably in the meantime, have gotten rid of many paper projects and paint a more accurate picture now.

The problem of exaggerated quantitative claims and the need for more qualitative studies has recently also been highlighted  by Marc Edelman in a special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies about methodological issues of land grab research.

In a way Harrigan seems to be uneasy about the “ample evidence” herself. At the end of her review she suggests that the implementation gap may well exist, but claims that negative effects would still occur in the form of preemptive displacements to empty land for investors.

In Ethiopia and on the earlier rainfed projects in Sudan this seems to have happened indeed as I write in Oil for Food; for the irrigation projects in the north of Sudan the situation is somewhat different. The land along the Nile is in private smallholder ownership and not targeted, while the land on the plateau above the river is formally state owned, barren and only usable for extensive pastoralism as long as no investments in irrigation infrastructure are undertaken.

To suggest a mere announcement or even a formal deal without actual investment would lead to an immediate displacement is rather unrealistic in such cases and tends to overrate coercive capacities and economic incentives on part of local governments. In fact in quite a few cases officials were unable to locate announced project sites and locals were not aware of them. In the cases where nothing is there, what am I supposed to write about?

Harrigan says that the US used the food weapon in retaliation to the formation of OPEC, which is not something that Oil for Food claims, as the height of the food weapon was in the 1970s not in 1960 and it was used or contemplated in retaliation to the Arab oil embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis, to rein in Nasser, to entice moderation in the Arab-Israeli conflict and push an already established OPEC to cooperate on global food issues during the World Food Conference 1974. But this is a minor thing.

To sum up, I fail to see how I portray an “unjustifiably rosy” picture of Gulf agro-investors as I discuss on multiple occasions their misguided belief in large scale project designs and their real estate centered mentality, which leads to an obsessive focus on formal land ownership and disinterest in joint equity projects with local stakeholders.

All I try to do is to give a differentiated picture and point out an implementation gap that has even grown since Oil for Food was written. Being “sanguine” is different. Land grabs in Africa seem to be bad business as the plummeting share price of Indian agro-investor Karuturi, the travails of Amoudi in Ethiopia or the Sudanese failures show.

Instead of claiming the counterfactual opposite, Oil for Food tries to find an explanation why so many projects have failed or have not been implemented in the first place. It also tries to consider the importance of local factors, domestic agro-investors and national development plans that outweigh the importance of foreign agro-investors and act in lockstep with them.

Coming back to Ethiopia, its government is equally frustrated, as it has hoped that foreign agro-investments would help kick off an agriculture led modernization. It now considers withdrawing concessions.

If any land investment were bad and threatened food security, these developments would mean an improvement. In the specific cases this might even be true, but overall there cannot be any doubt that more investments are needed given Africa’s declining food production per capita over the last decades.

Hence maybe the solution is somewhere in the middle. This might neither be in line with overtly romantic views of subsistence agriculture nor with hyperbolic profit expectations of 30 percent and more that are peddled by some investors, but a more realistic and sober approach in the land grab debate is needed.

Half of World Population Dependent on Food Trade by 2050

“Eating on an Interconnected Planet” is an interesting article by Graham K MacDonald in the Environmental Research Letters 8/ 2, 2013.

It argues that more and more countries will need to rely on food imports to satisfy their food needs. This will be the case for 51 percent of the world population by 2050, depending on expected population growth and development of agricultural productivity.

Over the last decade 70 percent of global cereal exports were undertaken by only 8 ocuntries that constituted only 11 percent of the world population. Hence such increase in global food trade will constitute a formidable challenge, but also a potential increase in geopolitical leverage for exporter countries.

Politicization of food trade that is outlined in the food weapon chapter of Oil for Food will  possibly increase. In the 1970s the US tried to exert pressure on Arab countries to counter their oil boycott. Gulf countries were clearly concerned as their Sudan bread basket plan and their reaching out to Australia for oil for food barter deals showed.

Later the US implemented a grain embargo against the Soviet Union. On other occasions it hoped to dampen domestic food inflation by export restrictions, very much like Argentina, Vietnam or Russia did during the global food crisis of 2008.

Politicization of food trade would not be  good news for the Middle Eastern countries that are the most food import dependent countries in the world as the following chart from MacDonald’s article shows:

Figure 1.

The chart describes the countries of origins of key crops (maize, milled/paddy rice, soybean, and wheat) that are imported by 49 countries that have lost the ability for self-sufficiency because of either water or land constraints or both.

Beside the Middle East and North Africa this is also the case in Mexico,Southern Africa and the OECD countries Italy, Netherlands, UK and Japan. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer is not included in the map, which looks rather strange, given the fact that its land reserve is maxed out and its future irrigation potential might be compromised by unfolding hydropolitcis along the Nile.

The large weight of the US as an exporter nation also appears rather dominating in the  chart compared to Brazil, Australia, Canada and Russia, all of which are major exporters of soybeans and  cereals. I doubt that this exactly reflects global food trade patterns, but possibly the trade with the 49 disadvantaged countries on the map. Here, the dominating US role might be the result of politically motivated food aid shipments, preferential trade agreements and other related factors.

Yet the basic message for a region that already imports a third of globally trade cereals is clear: The future of food security in the Middle East and North Africa are food imports. Maintaining them will require export revenues beyond oil, liquid global food markets and maneuvering their geopolitics which will likely become more tricky.

UK Forbids Shell to Pay Iran Debt in Food

The UK government has not granted permission to Shell to pay  outstanding debt it owes to Iran in food and pharmaceuticals.

Shell owes Iran $2.3 billion on earlier oil deals and has an interest to repay this debt to maintain good relations with the OPEC producer.

As financial sanctions prevent payment in cash Shell sorted out possible barter deals with British pharmaceutical company GSK and global grain trader Cargill. Iran is already trading part of its oil in barter deals with Pakistan or against non-convertible Rupees in the the case of India.

Food has been exempted from Iranian sanction regimes, yet Iran switched from the US to Australia as a major supplier at the height of the hostage crisis in 1979 out of fear of US food boycotts as I outline in chapter 4 of Oil for Food.

As a result of droughts Iran has increasingly resorted to food imports in recent years, also from the US of all things. This happened despite efforts at self-sufficiency, particularly in wheat.

While Iran managed to increase wheat production in the 2000s, this happened at the expense of other food items like vegetables and meat that witnessed an import boom.

Self-sufficiency remains elusive and the country continues to e dependent on grain imports, which it regards as a strategic liability in light of the current sanction regime.