A man named Louis Glickman once said, “The best investment on Earth – is earth.”
And what do we, as farmers, know of this great gift?
We know it is the foundation of civilization, the centre of well-being, and the giver of abundance, including joy. We know that it is scarred with the battles that have been fought for it and exposed by those who have exploited it. What may surprise us is how few of us have the privilege of owning it.
As privileged as we are in Canada to trade land, the same is not true in most parts of the world. The church and the state are large landowners and many of my colleagues live with long-term leases. Some areas seem to be reflective of medieval tenure as land leases are retracted from 99 to 30 years, which is not a long time in the life of a farmer. Urbanization is predominating in every corner of the earth and that pressures the very best of land.
And while Canadians enjoy an apparent unregulated land-ownership environment, governments worldwide are considering a clawback of agricultural land for recreational purposes. In Alberta, the use of Crown land is under review. In Scotland, there is a movement to break up farms back into smaller holdings. In South Africa and Zimbabwe, redistribution has not entirely been successful, and the solution has now become the problem. In other parts of Africa, land grabs by the UAE, India, China, and large chemical and investment firms are chewing through the rural landscape. The fear of ‘peak soil’ is pushing investment from the Persian Gulf to South America, and pressure mounts for foreign investment in all real estate including everything from agricultural lands to banks and airports.
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The stark reality is that protectionism is detested by financial markets and governments are sensitive. Foreign investors continue to knock on Canada’s door as they recognize it as one of the great food baskets of the world. Proponents of foreign investment think it is a good idea to allow more foreign investment as it may increase land value while those in rebuke feel it is not the economic generator it is set out to be. As the debate lingers in coffee shops and investment offices, it is important to note that Canadians are deep in the foreign agricultural land investment game. Collectively, they are the second-largest investor in Australian farmland following the U.S., and also own other farms around the globe.
In the global village, the average farm size remains small — with most farms at under 10 hectares. So when we talk about farmland, we have to talk about subsistence farms and challenges in land ownership. Most are owned by women who have trouble obtaining credit for land, tools, technology or market access because of gender discrimination. As women make up much of the world’s farmers and grow the majority of the world’s food, accessing credit is critical. So is safety and the ability to get to and from the farm as many women farmers face harassment, rape, torture, or death in their daily treks.
Infrastructure that works would benefit all farmers everywhere. Product sitting by the road does not differ from grain in a Prairie bin that has no train to haul it. And a long-term lease over short-term rent would help all farmers plan for improvements in soil and productivity. In Canada, more than 40 million acres of land are rented farmer to farmer.
It is no secret that the global farming model is reverting back to a system in North America and globally to consolidated domestic and foreign ownership by farmers and non-farmers alike. If the small farm is threatened, then we need to ask why there were revolutions to release farmland to the peasants and create the small farm model in the first place. The short answer: For democracy to exist and to spark capital investment. Business understood what governments didn’t: A strong economy needed a middle class and a middle class is reflective of a strong rural economy.
The landholder of the day has changed and the pressure is on to consolidate and to allow foreign investment, but we must acknowledge that Canadians are highly supportive of the small-farm and men and women who farm.
The question is: Who owns your farm? Well, technically the Queen does as Canada is part of her 6.6-billion-acre holdings which represents one-sixth of the world’s surface. In Canada, the federal government on behalf of the Crown directly manages 90 per cent of the land while private ‘ownership’ makes up the rest. Ownership rights are not protected in the constitution nor is ‘property’ defined. But the “right to enjoyment of property” is a fundamental right of every Canadian and Canadian farmer.
It is no small task to tackle the historical and constitutional discussions on land ownership. Nor is it easy to track just who owns what, but we do know population growth in the Persian Gulf and other areas will be fed with food from other lands. Around the globe, as food travels the world so does data and money. Investment will no doubt continue in the most valuable of all — the earth itself.