Biopiracy in the 21st Century:
Food Security or Food Imperialism?

Michael H. Glantz
27 June 2008



During the 1800s and 1900s, biopiracy (unlabeled as such at that time) was alive and well. Exotic plants and animals were taken from their natural habitats in distant places and brought to the metropolises and put into laboratories or zoos for research, display, or science. This practice, though illegal, continues to this day and is referred to as biopiracy. Rubber is a good example: Europeans actually stole rubber plants from Southeast Asia and smuggled them to England. Eventually, this led to the development of synthetic rubber, which had an adverse impact on the natural rubber sector.

There are many other examples: pyrethria from the Sudan is used in insecticides; periwinkle flower from Madagascar is used in medicine to combat childhood leukemia. You get the picture. Plants are taken from the South to laboratories of industry in the North where they are studied and, in many cases, important discoveries are made. The original country of the plant’s origin receives almost nothing of the profits made “downstream.” The discovery might in some cases have been related to existing local knowledge. The pharmaceutical company makes millions.

Now fast forward to the present, and then project into the future. Traditional biopiracy was about making discoveries and making money. The new version of biopiracy in the 21st century could prove to be even worse. Some countries are buying up tracts of land overseas in order to secure enough food for their own people. China is doing it. So too is Saudi Arabia. Dubai, too. These countries are short of arable land at home and are seeking ways to increase their national food supplies.

In the 1950s, geographer Georg Borgstrom wrote about “ghost acres.” He was referring to the dependence of countries such as Japan on taking protein (fish) from the oceans to supplement the country’s food supply. If the same amount of protein had to come from cultivated land, Japan would need to be a lot bigger than it is. Buying outright, renting, or borrowing land (maybe labor too) in other countries to produce food for home consumption is another variation of “ghost acres,” getting the needed protein from wherever you can.

The country (usually a richer one) using another country’s land (usually a poorer one) for its own food production seems to me like a new form of exploitation or even colonialism. The process is in its beginning stages for a variety of reasons. For example, some countries with large populations, growing in number and especially in affluence, do not have enough of their own fertile land to feed their citizens.

Food is like energy, in that governments seek to be self sufficient in both of these commodities. Given the shift in use of cultivable land from food production toward biofuel production to meet energy needs, and the increasing prices for food (meat, eggs, and milk, for example), along with the sharp worldwide increase in demand for and price of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas), this may be a process of exploitation of poorer countries by the richer developed and developing ones.


37 meters (1,104 feet) tall smokestack

Maybe the history and fate of the tall smokestack in the United States has relevance here. The tall smokestack was developed to move nearby pollution away in smokestacks high above the ground to be captured by winds to more distant locations. The effluent was carried great distances across cities, states, and international borders, to be washed out in rain onto another territory, which became a victim of distant polluters. Those distant places eventually got wise, complained, and passed laws to get rid of tall smokestacks. As a result, pollution once again became a local problem and therefore demanded local solutions by local policy makers.

By analogy, one could argue that it is the responsibility of national governments to work out their energy and food security through trade and/or aid to supplement their own efforts to attain the levels of food and energy needed to meet their development prospects.

This “land-grab” is not only happening across international borders but is also taking place within national borders as well. For example, the timesonline (UK) recently reported “Biofuel gangs kill for green profits.” The article’s author, Tony Allen-Mills, wrote about the following hair-raising process:

“Yet the trend [toward environmentally friendly energy] has already had disastrous consequences for tens of thousands of peasants in rural Colombia. A surge in demand for biofuels derived from agricultural products has unleashed a chaotic land grab by a new breed of gangster entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the world’s thirst for palm oil and related bioproducts. Vast areas of Colombia’s tropical forest are being cleared for palm oil plantations. Charities working with local peasants claim that paramilitary forces in league with biofuel conglomerates --- some of them financed by US government subsidies --- are forcing families off their land with death threats and bogus purchase offers… They simply visit a community and tell landowners, “If you don’t sell to us, we will negotiate with your widow.” []


board game

I had thought that the days of colonialism and of imperialism were well on their way to extinction. Maybe not, in light of the rich countries’ insatiable demands for food and fuel and the developing world’s search for foreign exchange (money) as well as for ways to improve its development prospects.

--Michael H. Glantz

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