A farm in Peru's Cañete basin. To produce more food for a growing population, a frank discussion about land rights, ownership and management is needed. Photo by: CIAT / CC BY-NC-SA

How can the world feed a global population of 9 billion by 2050? The answer might seem simple enough: grow more food.

The “green revolution,” a period of agricultural modernization efforts that bolstered food production and staved off famines in the mid-20th century, showed how a concerted global effort can invigorate and expand food systems with technology transfers and new techniques when farmers find the tools at their disposal to invest in more productive practices.

With concerns mounting over food price shocks, rapid population growth, changing consumption patterns and climate change impacts, calls for a “second green revolution” have grown almost cliché. And when those calls fail to engage with the very real tradeoffs that will be required if the world’s food production capacity is going to reach — and sustain — even greater heights, they risk sounding naïve.

Land is at the center of those challenges and tradeoffs. While the nature of the relationship between people and the planet has changed in once unthinkable ways, land remains a fundamental component of the world’s ability to feed itself.

“I can’t think of another sector that is so tied to the land. Land is the chief, primary input in all agricultural production,” said Nate Kline, chief of party for the Enabling Agricultural Trade project at Fintrac.

But the demands the global population is placing on land resources are changing, and so are the ways that people think about the most effective ways to organize land ownership and use.

More people live in urban areas than rural areas for the first time in human history. Cities must be linked to food production and distribution chains that are capable of supplying nutrition to large numbers of people at a consistent and dependable rate — and from a distance. That must all happen at a time when climate change is expected to introduce unpredictable shocks and when more of the global population is demanding higher-input foods like meat and dairy.

Against that backdrop, the way families, communities, nations, and international organizations choose to organize land and secure the relative strength of some land rights and land ownership claims over others will be central to answering tough questions about a food-secure future.

How can we produce more food, and at what cost? How do we feed a growing population while still upholding the rights of existing land-holders to benefit from the use and development of their resources? Who should decide what constitutes a right to use and develop land in the first place? Our answers to these questions will help to determine the future of human life on Earth.

For farmers, food security is a healthy income

The “only way” we’re going to achieve food security for large numbers of people, said Olaf Kula, program manager for ACDI/VOCA's West Africa regional office, is to produce a lot more food in the countries that are food-insecure.

But achieving food security is not just about whether the world can grow enough food. It is also about how the agricultural sector, which employs more than 1 billion people, can become a more viable, dependable source of income for people living in rural areas. The income of the very poor is more closely linked to growth in the agricultural sector than to growth in any other sector, according to research from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s land tenure division.

When land users feel secure that their land will belong to them as long as they wish to keep it, that it will not be arbitrarily seized by foreign investors, by other land-using groups, or forced out of agricultural use by encroaching development, then those individuals are more likely to invest in the long-term development and stewardship of their land and resources.

With that kind of security often come better land-use choices — to conserve water and soil nutrients, for example, instead of exhausting them for short-term gain. And it can mean landholders are more willing to shoulder the upfront costs of fertilizers, seed varieties and equipment that can lead to higher incomes and more marketable crops over time. When families sell more and better food, not only do they have more nutritious yields, but those yields generate more income to spend on household food needs.

“There is a direct link between the security that a person has, or at least the perceived security that they feel in their access to the land and their willingness … to undertake investments that over time may pay off … but that take more than one growing season to pay for themselves,” Kline said.

With more money from marketable crops, families have the option to invest in their own nutrition — and to reinvest in the enhanced long-term productivity of their land and resources by buying better inputs and equipment and accessing better management techniques.

The right kinds of investment

A world that grows more food but does so without enhancing the profitability of small-scale farming will not be food-secure as long as small-scale farming remains the backbone of rural economies throughout the developing world.

But by the same token, the relationship between people and land has shifted too dramatically to imagine that large-scale investment and production won’t be a big part of any global food security solution. As demand for land and food grows — driven by concerns over food shortages and demand for non-food commodities like biofuels — the incentive to buy and sell large tracts of land continues to increase.

Many parts of the world, but perhaps most notoriously Africa, have witnessed a rise in large-scale, commercial, foreign investment in tracts of land measuring in the hundreds of thousands of hectares — what many refer to derisively (and sometimes misleadingly) as “land-grabbing.”

“You can’t find 100,000 hectares that don’t have people on it anywhere in Africa, unless it’s on water,” Kula said.

Transferring the rights and responsibilities for food production from smallholder farmers to larger agribusinesses can boost efficiency and productivity. Large producers enjoy economies of scale, and they are able to establish relationships with commercial buyers that benefit from the consistency and dependability of large-scale production.

The challenge, Kula said, is to find opportunities within large-scale investment plans for smallholder farmers to boost their productivity — or to benefit from the sale of their land if they choose to divest. That means finding good models for responsible, fair and socially inclusive development; those models must either draw smallholders into investment schemes or compensate them fairly for the land they choose to give up.

“Some of these arrangements work better than others,” Kula said.

But for either of them to happen, smallholder farmers must be able to demonstrate their legitimate claim to a parcel of land.

A strong role for public action

In order for that pro-poor sentiment to become a reality, smallholders’ rights to own and transfer land must be secured so that they can either be officially incorporated into agricultural development schemes or afforded the opportunity to profit from the sale of their property. That security demands a strong role for government action, and a willingness among public officials to resist tempting opportunities for short-term gain in favor of a more regulated, inclusive development process.

In Liberia, according to Kula, that has often not been the case. Some foreign companies have signed agreements with the government for “very long-term leases on huge tracts of land” with the understanding that those lease agreements will help to reduce poverty and increase food security.

“A number of these companies have not fulfilled their commitments to the socially inclusive part or the equitable and transparent displacement of smallholders,” Kula said.

But while private investors have a responsibility to uphold their commitments, so do governments have a responsibility to monitor and enforce them.

“The government, in the case of Liberia, has not established the rules clearly and the enforcement mechanism and the consequences for failing to honor these arrangements,” Kula suggested.

Government officials involved in land lease arrangements face a choice: facilitate the deal and take a large fee from the foreign investor, or take time and spend political capital to establish a robust rules framework for compensating smallholder farmers and then spend years monitoring and policing that rules framework. Too often, governments choose short-term gain over long-term benefit.

“The incentives for land-grabbing are multiple,” Kula said.

There are some encouraging signs. In April, beverage giant PepsiCo joined Coca-Cola on the list of companies that now agree to uphold the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure, which seek to promote food security and other goals by upholding local land access and ownership rights.

But in a sector as complex and context-specific as land tenure and property rights, even those success stories raise challenging questions that the international community has to confront as it moves forward on fortifying the link between land rights and food security.

Avoiding the “clash” of the formal and informal

Customary land ownership systems still apply in many parts of the world, and in many cases have existed for so long partly because they have not faced significant outside threats or shocks.

“When you have relative land abundance, customary tenure systems can function quite well. Where you begin to see competition for the land, where you begin to see demand for larger tracts of land by larger and larger scale investors, … there begins to be this sort of clash,” Kline said.

With more efforts underway to formalize customary land use rights into officially recognized laws, international organizations and governments are finding they must strike a careful balance between promoting universal principles — like FAO’s voluntary guidelines — and adhering to local customs and norms.

In Papua New Guinea, for example, 93 percent of the country’s land is held in customary titles, arranged according to various rules by the roughly 800 different tribes who live there. Some of those systems are patrilineal, some are matrilineal, with significant variation between them. The government is now seeking to survey those customary rights and codify them into laws that can be defended and upheld in courts and against external pressure.

“Rather than creating formal requirement for equal treatment for men and women, … the government of Papua New Guinea is leaving it up to the communities themselves to establish their own articles of incorporation,” Kline said.

That approach might satisfy proponents of upholding local cultures and local land use traditions, but it does less to forward international best practices and guidelines around land governance.

“What you’re beginning to see in Papua New Guinea is they’re creating … in perpetuity a limitation on most women’s rights to actually vote on the decisions about how land is used,” Kline said, adding: “It seems that the jury is really still out on the benefits that greater tenure security have on women.”

The way forward

Research on the link between land tenure and food security is growing but, as Jack Keefe said, “It’s still an evolving field and there’s no one answer.”

“I think the more that you’re bringing people around the table, sharing ideas, and then trying to have evidence-based research in place, … that’s really the way forward,” said Keefe, an associate for land and market development at Tetra Tech, working on a pastoral resiliency project in Ethiopia to secure lands held in common by pastoral groups.

Formalizing customary land rights and ensuring that smallholders’ claims are officially registered can help advance sustainable agriculture. But those efforts must be based on inclusive planning and informed by a public discussion about how to produce the food that we need with the land that we have.

Want to learn more? Check out Feeding Development's campaign site and tweet us using #FeedingDev.

Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.