At a more basic level, Jay O’Neil, senior ag economist at Kansas State’s international grains program, argues that big investments in foreign farmland don’t do much to solve nations’ food security fears.

“In countries like China, the leaders get up each morning and ask ‘How are we going to guarantee food security for the coming years?’” says O’Neil. “They don’t realize that buying land doesn’t solve the question. It has zero effect on domestic price inflation, and it doesn’t guarantee that the grain will go to whoever owns the land. 

“It doesn’t mean governments wouldn’t slap on export controls as Russia did in 2010. Probably when they most need grain is when they would be at the most risk of restrictions,” he says.

Thompson concurs to some extent and says, “They know they don’t have nearly the agricultural resources themselves, so they must do anything they can to increase their food security. With the erosion of confidence in the ability of world markets to assure supplies, they are thinking that if they own the farms, they have a better chance of getting the food out.”

Projects could, however, pay off in better food security if they lead to improved yields and higher production in regions that currently perform well below their potential.

The World Bank analysis argues that the increased demand for agricultural commodities could be met for the next decade by increasing productivity and farmland. 

For example, the African countries now drawing the most investor interest achieve 30% or less of the potential on currently cultivated lands, while their savannahs represent a vast area for potential development.

“Basically they’ve got a huge tract like Brazil’s,” says Thompson. “China sees that, too. If China can help them become self-sufficient in food, it takes a lot of pressure off world markets.

China is looking to buy 200,000 hectares of farmland in Russia, Australia, Argentina and other countries, the Des Moines Tribune reported in March.  One of their Chinese sources say China has already invested $85 million since 2005.  In Venezuela and Zimbabwe, they provide machinery and laborers in return for 20% of the harvest.  In Australia they buy local land and in Brazil and Argentina they tend to rent.  They also rent in Russia and Mongolia. China has already invested $85 million since 2005, the Register adds. “In Venezuela and Zimbabwe, they provide machinery and laborers in return for 20% of the harvest. In Australia they buy local land and in Brazil and Argentina they tend to rent. They also rent in Russia and Mongolia,” the Des Moines Register reported.

The World Bank’s Thompson adds, “Even in places where they’re not buying land, China is putting a lot into building roads and other infrastructure that can encourage agricultural development.”

For example, China will invest $10 billion in Argentina’s railways, the Wall Street Journal reported in March.