EU plant protein plans: sustainable for who?

Written by Chris Chancellor

Amid growing evidence of the far-reaching consequences of our global food system, reform of the current global agrifood supply-chain is increasingly being demanded from scholars, activists, farmers, and society at large. Concerns extend beyond the environmentally harmful aspects of food production, but also issues related to food and nutritional security, human health, social justice, and the concentration of control over land and other relevant markets.

Partly in response to these demands, as well as in line with its geopolitical interests, the European Union (EU) has made steps towards a sustainable plant protein strategy. Plant protein supply in the EU is currently heavily reliant on imports of soybean from Latin America’s Southern Cone region. This leaves the European livestock sector, the ultimate destination of almost all of these imports, vulnerable to volatile international markets and shifting geopolitical dynamics such as increasing demand from China for Latin American soy.

It would appear that these plans centre on expanding soybean production within the EU and neighbouring countries. However, the nature of this proposed production seems worryingly vague. In addition, visions of ‘efficiency’ and ‘sustainability’ remain inadequately narrow, as do understandings of food security. Ultimately, these seem to remain centred on yield per hectare valuations, albeit with a ‘sustainable’ veneer. This report calls for a more inclusive understanding of these concepts to form the basis of EU attempts towards food system reform, including explicit considerations of who controls food systems.

In the context of EU protein crop expansion, a control-blind approach to efficiency and sustainability is evident. There is a focus on headline hitting topics such as non-GM produce and reducing deforestation, as well as the fact that soy is a legume. These are not unimportant, and the fact that they receive political attention is in many ways a sign of progress. However, in isolation, they do not equate to environmentally and socially sustainable supply-chains. How this new soy supply is produced, distributed and consumed, as well as who controls the relevant markets and processes, holds the key for inclusively sustainable food systems.

Two useful concepts in pushing more inclusive food systems thinking are agroecology and food sovereignty. Whilst these concepts and related practices offer a promising alternative pathway, they cannot make a meaningful contribution without political support. European agricultural policy must nurture and facilitate a transition away from the concentrated industrial model that currently dominates. In order to do so, EU protein strategies, and wider food system reform in general, must therefore be based on broader, interconnected, and inclusive understandings of efficiency and sustainability.


Front Cover


Pastoralism under Threat: SAGCOT in Tanzania

Written by Flora Sonkin

“Pastoralism under Threat: Human Rights Violations in the Southern Agriculture Growth Corridor of Tanzania” is a policy brief by Terra Nuova, CELEP and Hands on the Land for Food Sovereignty, which analyzes, with a human rights approach, violations to the detriment of the many shepherds and small-scale farmers in Tanzania.

A recent fact-finding mission uncovered a series of forced evictions, cattle raids and personal violence against pastoralist communities, with serious consequences from the point of view of human right to food. These violations are related to the implementation of so-called corridors “for agricultural growth”, plans that envisage the creation of large infrastructures at the service of industrial and export agriculture, linked to foreign investments, which in the case explored by this brief, did not fulfil the process of Free Prior and Informed Consent of local populations and thus does not reflect the needs and interests of these communities.

In particular, the document analyzes the case of the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT), a project supported by the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.

PDF: Pastoralism Under Threat


Eastern European peasants unite to fight for their rights

Written by Chris Chancellor

In a historic event, Eastern European peasants and civil society groups have united their struggles along the lines of the UN peasant’s rights declaration.

On Wednesday 15th November, peasant producers from across Romania came together at a conference in Bucharest to demand that their rights be recognised, respected and championed. They were joined by the Romanian State Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Deputy State Secretary of the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture, as well as key figures from the UN peasant rights process, civil society leaders and peasant advocates from across the Eastern European region. Both state representatives expressed some form of support for the movement, but stopped short of committing a positive vote at the UN. This is the first time that such an assortment of actors has come together in the region to address the issue.

What is the peasant rights declaration?

The ‘UN Declaration on the Rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas’ is a document under negotiation at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The final draft that will be presented in 2018 is the culmination of decades of struggle by the peasant movement La Via Campesina.

The movement, whose 200 million members worldwide have had enough of what they see as systematic discrimination and recurrent rights abuses against them, has pushed for this declaration as a complementary global instrument to the current human rights framework. They have been joined by countless civil society entities as well as state officials in voicing the need for small-scale food producers to be valued and protected.

The development of extensive and rigorous trade laws in recent decades has tilted the balance of our food system in favour of international commodity traders, who forward an intensive industrial model of farming. Therefore, this declaration, in both its actual final output as a legal document, as well as through the process itself, is seen as a way of shifting global food production towards something based more on rights, obligations and responsibilities.

The adoption of the declaration will be subject to two stages of voting. Firstly, the states who are currently members of the Human Rights Council will vote. Then if the declaration passes this initial step, another vote will take place involving all UN member states.

The blind leading the blind

The European Union typically votes as a bloc in these types of negotiations, which in practice means that the powerful players such and Germany and the United Kingdom (although not so relevant anymore) dictate the votes of many European states. Both of these countries have been strongly opposed to the declaration to date, playing down the need for additions to the current human rights framework. They also adopt the attitude that the peasantry is an outdated concept, and not relevant for modern day European agriculture.

This position is perhaps not surprising, seeing as much of Western Europe has undergone a process of complete industrialisation of the agricultural sector. This transformation has been fuelled by significant state subsidies over the years, and continues to be the direction favoured by these governments, despite increasing evidence of inefficiency and the negative externalities that it has brought.

In addition, and contrary to common perception, Europe harbours significant populations of small-scale peasant producers, particularly in Central and Eastern European. The kinds of problems and abuses recounted by communities in the region echo those of testimonies from the developing world; unequal access to land, land grabbing, lack of autonomy over production inputs, practices and output markets, as well as deepening rural poverty.

Rising in the East

However, there are signs that Eastern Europe is starting to stir, and this conference represents the first regional gathering to discuss the topic of peasant rights. The location, Romania’s capital Bucharest, was somewhat fitting in that the country holds around half of the EU’s known peasant population.

Civil society actors in the region are adamant that states must stand up for the rights of their citizens in the international policy arena, rather than following obediently behind western powers as they have done until now. Optimism is high that with greater engagement in the UN process, and stronger and more open state-civil society cooperation, that a well-informed and unified Eastern European front could challenge the traditional western hegemony.

Such a challenge could finally pave the way for serious steps towards an overhaul of regional and indeed global food systems. It could give the space for genuine considerations of an alternative model in Europe, rather than the continual tweaking of a rampantly unequal and destructive one.

Analysis & Opinion

Investors overseas or the industrial squeeze?

Written by Chris Chancellor

In response to growing concerns over EU farmland concentration, a recent European Commission communication has addressed how states can deal with foreign farmland acquisition. But does this miss the point?

The state of EU agriculture is fast becoming a topic of concern. As officials endeavour to hammer out a new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for the post-2020 period, alarming revelations have continued to emerge on both the environmental and social impacts of current production systems. A big part of this is related to who actually controls European agriculture today.

A creeping crisis

In April this year, the European Parliament adopted an own-initiative report that demanded action to reverse the trend of farmland concentration in the EU, in which 3% of the farms now control over 52% of the land.

Concentration of farmland control in the EU. Source: data taken from TNI report.

In addition, a 2015 investigation revealed widespread farmland grabbing within the bloc. These trends go hand in hand with a CAP that has prioritised a technical industrial agricultural model; this has been built on a vision of ‘productivity’ defined narrowly by yield and economic revenue, with little acknowledgement of wider socioeconomic and environmental factors. This oversight has its consequences.

A recent study found a worrying decline in insect populations in Germany, which it attributed largely to increases in chemical pesticide use; flying insect numbers have decreased by 75% in the last 27 years. Insects are crucial to human agriculture: they are pollinators, help control pests, and are agents of soil fertility and health. Their demise points to a worrying state of affairs for agricultural livelihoods and general food security.

Flying insect decline copy
Flying insect population decline in Germany. Source: data taken from Hallmann et al. (2017)

This year also saw the launch of the Global Land Outlook report from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which warned of the worrying pace at which soils are being depleted worldwide. Again, industrial-scale intensive agriculture shoulders much of the responsibility.

As a result of these developments, civil society as well as some Member States have been pushing the EU in order to clarify how they can intervene in agricultural land markets without breaking EU law. In mid-October, the European Commission (EC) issued a document explaining where it stood on regulating farmland acquisition within the EU. The communication basically provided an initial commentary on the current scenario as they see it, and then some recommendations for policymakers in Member States.


The Commission position

The communication is based largely on the jurisprudence of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). It has looked at the court’s historic rulings on attempted farmland regulation within EU member states, and interpreted these to provide some basic guidelines on what is considered acceptable and what is not.

The key barrier to strict farmland regulation is the need to comply with fundamental freedoms and principles from the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Those most relevant for agricultural land acquisitions are the free movement of capital, the right of establishment, and the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality. The EC document highlights the importance of maintaining these principles, especially the free movement of capital, and forwards the viewpoint that these capital flows are needed in order to enhance agricultural productivity.

There is thus very little room for manoeuvre for states looking to control how their arable lands are traded, who comes to control them, and how they are used.

The special nature of agriculture

However, farmland does get some form of special dispensation. The CJEU has recognised the special nature of agriculture, and accepts that in some specific circumstances, these fundamental freedoms can be restricted in the interest of the ‘overriding public good’. Some objectives that justify regulating farmland transactions, according to the EC document, include:

– to increase the average size of holdings to allow greater economic exploitation

– to prevent land speculation

– to preserve agricultural communities, keep land in agricultural use, and maintain a favourable distribution of land ownership for socio-economic and environmental reasons.

Whether or not a particular Member State’s policy intervention is justified by one of these objectives is reviewed on a case by case basis by the CJEU.

In addition, states must comply with the principle of proportionality. This means that the law must be adjudged to suit the relevant objective, but must not go beyond what is deemed necessary to achieve that objective. Basically, it must be proven that the regulation cannot be replaced by a less restrictive alternative.

Tools to rule (or rule out)

The types of regulation deemed likely to pass CJEU scrutiny are as follows:

– Prior authorisation of farmland transactions (process must be based on objective and pre-released criteria, and not subject to discretion of relevant state authority)

– Pre-emption rights (considered less restrictive than prohibition of purchase by non-farmers)

– Price controls (prevention of ‘excessively speculative’ prices).

Whereas the following policy tools are considered unlikely to gain approval:

– Self-farming obligation (not considered proportionate)

– Requiring farming qualifications from purchasers (not considered proportionate)

– Restrictions based on residence (adjudged to restrict free movement of capital, as well as freedom of establishment and ability to choose residence freely)

– Prohibition on selling to legal persons (adjudged to disproportionately restrict free movement of capital and freedom of establishment)

– Acquisition caps (CJEU has actually discerned land concentration as being in the overriding public interest, so caps are unlikely to receive approval)

– privileges in favour of local acquirers (adjudged to restrict free movement of capital and freedom of establishment, as well as discriminate on grounds of nationality)


The communication seems to have identified foreign ownership of arable land as the primary cause of concern here. While it recognises this as a political issue, it plays down foreign ownership levels in the EU, portraying them as negligible, although increasing.

However, they base their interpretation on outright acquisition, which is a rather out of touch approach, as it misses the preferred tactic of controlling land through national subsidiaries or through leases. In addition, firms controlling input markets or the downstream sector essentially gain de facto control over farmland decision-making. Acknowledging these aspects would paint a wholly different picture, and a rather alarming one at that. This is particularly the case in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), where fertile soils and cheaper land are attracting increasing numbers of agricultural investors and speculators. In Romania, for example, up to 40% of the land is estimated to be controlled by foreigners.

Romania foreign controlled farmland
Foreign-controlled farmland in Romania. Source: data taken from European Parliament (2015)

More to the point though, this focus on foreign investment as the main cause of concern is a misplaced one. The anxiety in civil society has nothing to do with nationalism, nor should it. Of primary concern here is the nature of land transactions, and the accelerating transfer of farmland control to industrial agribusinesses and financial investors. This is occurring both within and across borders.

These sorts of investors are propagating a production model that is draining not only the soils, but also populations from rural areas. The drive for productivity has transformed European agriculture into an extractive industry, treating land as any other input and people as disposable aspects of progress.

In rural areas, the livelihoods of entire communities have been replaced with machines and farm managers. This has deepened rural poverty and placed the reigns of our food system in ever fewer hands. The new generation has been left with little choice but to head for the cities. Of course there are many other factors at play in this process, but there is no doubt that industrialisation of agriculture has been central in deconstructing viable rural livelihoods.

A capital affair

Another point put forward by the EC document is the benefits for productivity that foreign investments have brought. It highlights how undercapitalised agricultural areas across the globe have benefitted from inflows of capital and knowledge from foreign investments. However, the focus on foreignness once again deflects attention from the real problem: the nature of these investments and the way in which productivity is defined.

The capitalisation of agriculture has focused on a technical production model, often importing the inputs and then exporting the produce. Productivity in this sense is defined by the yields per hectare that can be achieved, and the economic revenue that can then be attained from the output. This framing passes over who controls the whole process, who reaps the benefits, and the wider socio-economic and environmental consequences of this structure.

Productivity in agriculture is in urgent need of a redefinition. It must incorporate a more holistic understanding of the ecological and social costs and benefits of different modes of production.

If it did so, a wholly different picture would emerge. A recent study estimated that for every $1 of agricultural produce that consumers purchase, society pays an extra $2 in an attempt to clean-up the environmental and health costs of its production.

Out of proportion?

Recognising agricultural productivity in a wider context would also help to reconfigure the legal policy environment. Many of the objections to different policy options set out by the CJEU are to do with this issue of proportionality. This is a subjective judgement, rather than something based on concrete criteria.

Given the favourable light in which the EC views deregulated investments in agriculture, there is not a sense of urgency or necessity in regulating farmland control and acquisitions. Because of this, tougher and more effective measures to protect farmland from dangerous forms of investment are unlikely to get the go ahead, as a lesser ‘more proportional’ measure will always be sought.

The problem is that the proportions of the emerging food system crisis are not fully understood, nor is it fully appreciated how close to the brink we might be teetering. This needs to be addressed, and there is evidence that the tide is starting to turn.

In October this year, the European Parliament demonstrated a strong opposition to some of the ills of industrial agriculture. On 24th October, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted to reject EC proposals to renew the license for glyphosate, a highly potent chemical ingredient in herbicides. In addition, they voted to decrease acceptable limits for cadmium, a hazardous metal present in fertilisers. On the same day, EC proposals for licensing for placing on the market of new GM varieties of soy, oilseed rape and maize were voted down by MEPs.

If EU farmland is going to be sustained in a state that can feed, nourish and provide livelihoods for future generations, this kind of foresight needs to be shown and acted upon across the sector.


Sugar-coated plantation plans back in the spotlight in Aru, Indonesia

Written by Chris Chancellor

Confusion as representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture arrive to facilitate agricultural investor in Southern Aru.

The arrival of a helicopter and private jet at the airport in Dobo, the capital of the island regency of Aru, Indonesia, has caused quite a stir amongst local residents. Local media outlets and activists are now reporting that this activity signified the arrival of representatives from Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture, there to try to facilitate an agricultural investment project.

It remains unclear as to what this new development involves, but the people of Aru are no strangers to the spectre of corporate investments in their lands. Since 2010, a coalition of local residents, government officials, journalists and religious leaders, self-named the Save Aru Coalition, have been fighting off plans to develop sugar cane plantations across the islands. The plans were dropped after significant local resistance, with the then Minister of Forestry declaring the land unfit for sugar cane production.

Today, Ministry of Agriculture officials are thought to be meeting with community leaders in Southern Aru. The reported aim of the meeting is to force through a deal for an external investment project on customary territories. Members of the Save Aru Coalition have already come out in opposition to this activity and have reignited their movement, calling it Save Aru Part 2.

Sweet canes, sour roots

The Aru Islands regency is an archipelago at the very eastern tip of Indonesia. They fall under the jurisdiction of the Province of Maluku, and provide a home for around 85,000 residents.

Aru Islands
The Aru Islands in Eastern Indonesia. Source: Google Maps, 2017.

In 2010, it was revealed that the local bupati (regency head) had agreed to hand over around 500,000ha of land to a consortium of investors named PT Menara Group. The total land area of the Aru Islands is around 700,000ha. These investors are thought to have come from across the globe; the US, UK, Netherlands, Brazil, Nigeria and South Korea all nations from which members of the investment group are rumoured to come from. However, this is very hard to trace and verify as local subsidiaries were set up and registered at a fictitious address in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

PT Menara Concession map
Map of concessions for the 28 PT Menara Group subsidiaries. Source: adapted and translated from AWAS MIFEE

The project aimed to develop sugar cane plantations on Aru’s outer islands, which are composed largely of mangrove and tropical forest, as well as some areas of grassland savanna. Many Arunese communities rely on these ecosystems for wild gathering as well as small-scale agriculture, which underpins their food security. They also harbour iconic species of fauna such as the Lesser Bird of Paradise, Cassowary, and tree kangaroo.

Saving Aru

The Save Aru Coalition was formed in response, advocating fiercely against the destruction of indigenous forests, and gathering a book of signatures of opposition from across the islands. This was delivered to relevant Ministries in Jakarta. Opposition was also national and international with indigenous rights group AMAN and the UK-based NGO the Forest Peoples Program sending a letter of concern to United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD). CERD responded by urging the Indonesian government to review its plantation law.

However, local opposition was not universal. A handful of community leaders and many local government officials lent their support to the plantations, citing their ability to bring much needed employment and infrastructure to this remote corner of Indonesia. Younger males in particular are attracted by the prospect of manual labour jobs, which many search for unsuccessfully on an ad-hoc basis in Dobo.

Nonetheless, the voices of opposition were by far the louder, and under increasing national and international pressure, the central Ministry of Forestry ordered a revocation of the permits in 2014. It is not clear whether this was ever officially enforced.

Investor whack-a-mole

Since the Menara case, local opposition groups have remained vigilant in monitoring the situation; it is well known that a long list of investors are circling these waters, looking to tap into its unknown natural wealth. In 2016, alarm bells were raised when the Aru regency was included under the Ministry of Agriculture’s MIFEE project. The project is aimed at attaining national self-sufficiency of certain agricultural products, such as sugar cane. However, the announcement was made without any prior consultation of the Arunese communities that it would potentially displace or incorporate.

The recent whirr of activity in Dobo and Southern Aru signals the latest corkscrew in the external investment rollercoaster that the regency seems to be riding. Debate is once again sure to be heated, with the age old arguments of economic development and modernisation, as well as that of national food security, mobilised by those in favour. Opponents will point to the wealth of examples from around the globe that have led to the marginalisation of local peoples, who ironically have often faced poverty and starvation as a result of such extractive investment models.