Food and Rhetoric

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Food and Rhetoric

Cullen Nutt

Two new books illuminate politics high and low—the role of high principle and the urgency of land grabs around the world.

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2m 57sec

Land grabs—a catchall term for purchases by governments and private investors of huge tracts of farmland, mostly in the developing world—are on the rise. Some 568 million acres of land—an area as large as Western Europe—changed hands or were leased between 2001 and 2011, according to one study. The lion’s share of those transactions occurred after 2008. Michael Kugelman, who in the Autumn 2012 WQ surveyed India’s sense of its unique role to play in world affairs, tackles the issue in The Global Farms Race: Land Grabs, Agricultural Investment, and the Scramble for Food Security (Island), which he co-edited with Susan L. Levenstein. Food prices reached new heights in 2008 (but have leveled off since then) and many governments fear the social and economic consequences of high commodity costs and diminishing resources. One solution is to bypass the global market and till faraway lands to supply your own needs. Countries as diverse as China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Brazil have gotten in on the action—as have investors from the United States.

If the various actors involved play nice, land grabs could benefit local growers and faraway consumers alike. But there is plenty of room for predation, writes Kugelman, a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center. Land designated unused or fallow by central governments often turns out to be vital to people living nearby. The wheeling and dealing over land is opaque, and host governments are frequently in a weak negotiating position. Economists, sociologists, anthropologists, business consultants, and a commodity exporter contribute amplifying chapters on these issues. “The world may be experiencing a land rush,” Kugelman writes, “but it is also caught up in a rush for information about this topic—and supply is limited.”

In the Summer 2012 WQ, historian Gil Troy admitted that modern American presidential campaigns frequently descend into farce. But, he argued, they do a fine job of testing the candidates’ character and mettle. Troy, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, finds plenty of mettle in Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927–2003), the Harvard sociologist and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1975 when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that equated Zionism with racism. In Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism (Oxford), Troy recounts Moynihan’s famous reaction to the resolution. The United States, he thundered to the assembly, “does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”

The Assembly ultimately revoked the resolution—in 1991. But Moynihan’s unvarnished words put him in diplomatic hot water. He resigned as ambassador a few months later. The speech won him praise and admiration from the American public, however. He went on to serve four terms as U.S. senator from New York (and was instrumental in creating the Woodrow Wilson Center). In the malaise of the 1970s, Troy argues, Moynihan’s speech jolted many Americans out of a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate coma. “Moynihan’s anger was patriotic but not personal, populist but not partisan, offering confident leadership when most leaders dithered,” Troy writes. Fully five years before the election of Ronald Reagan, Moynihan “paved the way for a more muscular, idealistic, foreign policy.”

The WQ tips its hat to Kugelman and Troy.

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Photo of newly cleared farmland in Uganda by Friends of the Earth International via flickr