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January 2010, Volume 16, Number 1

Global: Land, Hunger, Dole

Land. Africa has traditionally been land abundant, with more land than could be farmed efficiently by relatively small populations. One response is leasing land to foreigners who export what they produce--some 50 million acres of African farm land was leased to foreigners for 40 to 99 years between 2007 and 2009. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is developing a code of conduct to govern land leasing to foreigners.

In Ethiopia, only a quarter of the estimated 175 million acres of arable land is farmed. Over 80 percent of the 75 million Ethiopians are farmers, but few achieve high yields. The government offered 40-year leases on six million acres to foreign investors, attracting Indians and Saudis. Local residents are hired to work on mega farms, often at wages of a $1 or $2 a day. The government hopes that the experience they gain in modern agriculture will make Ethiopian agriculture more efficient.

One prominent investor is Saudi Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi. He was born in Ethiopia and owns plantations, mines, and hotels in Ethiopia. Gulf Cooperation Council countries import about 60 percent of their food, and are among the major investors in land in Ethiopia and Sudan.

Hunger. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization in October 2009 reported that the number of hungry people rose to one billion in 2009, nearly a seventh of the world's population. There is general agreement that food production can be increased to feed the world's growing population, but there is less agreement on how to grow food at affordable prices in developing countries with hungry residents, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

An FAO summit on combating hunger in mid-November 2009 failed to agree on two goals pushed by developing countries, that is, to end hunger by 2025 and to make agricultural aid 20 percent of all international development aid, as was the case in 1980. Industrial country leaders in Italy in July 2008 agreed to commit $22 billion in farm aid.

Dole. Dole Food has been sued by workers employed on its banana farms in Central America who claim they were rendered sterile by the pesticide dibromochloropropane (DBCP). Many of these cases involved Nicaraguan workers, and initial verdicts for workers in US jury trials began to unravel in 2009 when a California judge concluded that plaintiffs lawyers advertised for workers to sue Dole and faked lab results.

In October 2009, a Florida judge ruled that a 2005 $98.5 million Nicaraguan judgment against Dole and DBCP manufacturer Dow Chemical could not be enforced in the US because of flaws the Nicaraguan law allowing such trials. The Nicaraguan government in 2000 enacted a law allowing anyone exposed to DBCP on a banana farm with a lab report showing he is sterile to collect damages; Nicaraguan courts were ordered to fast-track DBCP claims. Evidence is limited to eight days, after which the court has three days to decide the case. Defendants are required to deposit money in a trust fund in order to defend themselves; most do not.

Dole was bought in 1985 by David Murdock, who took the company private in 2003 for $2.5 billion, largely financed with debt; Murdock largely controls Dole. A planned stock offering at $14 a share in October 2009 valued Dole at $1.2 billion, but the stock soon fell to $12.

Coconuts. Southern India produces coconuts, which are harvested by hand, usually by members of the Dalit, or untouchable, caste. In Kerala, were literacy rates are high and work in the Gulf countries accelerated change, there are complaints of shortages of coconut harvesters as youth refuse to follow their parents up the trees.

India's coconut trees produce about 60 nuts every 45 days, but they do not ripen uniformly. So far, picking platforms have proved too expensive and not sufficiently stable for pickers and the coconuts that they harvest. However, with wages rising to up to $8 a day, more than low level clerks in Kerala, the push for feasible machines has accelerated.

Salt Trade. Salt has been transported from dry lake beds in Northern Mali to Timbuktu for centuries, but trucks are gradually replacing camels, reducing the trip from two weeks to three days. Traders usually buy the salt from miners, and hope to resell it in Timbuktu for a profit.

Stephanie McCrummen, "The ultimate crop rotation," Washington Post, November 23, 2009. Lydia Polgreen, "Ripe for the Plucking, but Fewer Dare to Try," New York Times, November 18, 2009.

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