The contested nature of agri-investments and data about them.


A key concern of my project was and is to open the black box of global finance’s increasing role in farming, to engage critically with the institutional landscapes that have emerged from this trend in different historio-geographical settings and to explore how this has affected the structure, management, control and ownership of different agricultural ventures.

Intensive agriculture is a major driver of global environmental change. This trend has been strikingly articulated by sheep-to-dairy farm conversions in Aotearoa New Zealand, many of which have been driven by overseas investments. Such transformations have not remained uncontested. The transformation of M into M’ (capital invested resulting in capital + returns) is sometimes troubled, for instance by activist groups such as Save Our Water who staged a ‘poo protest’ in the Southland region in 2018.

The group dumped cow effluent drawn from regional rivers at the feet of the councillors of Environment Southland in Invercargill to claim that water quality had become worse in the past years. They demanded inter alia for a ban on new dairy conversions and an end to intensive winter grazing. However, surprisingly, they also singled out one foreign investor as a champion of organic dairy farming, adding complexity to the normative questions related to agri-investments.

In general, the landing of finance capital in different agricultural regions around the world has not been smooth and straightforward. Non-governmental organizations, regulators, the media, and adjacent communities have scrutinized and sometimes contested these investments. Agri-focused asset managers often needed to double-account for their trade: On the one hand, they needed to defend their investments against moral critique, often highlighting that they help feeding the world and stick to environmental, social, and corporate governance principles. On the other hand, they needed to justify farmland investments vis-a-vis other investment opportunities. Creating a widespread “bullishness” about investments in farming among investors and mainstreaming it has been more frictional than financial narratives mobilized in investment brochures and conferences suggest.

The following section highlights the various troubles linked to agri-investments, including their moral and political contestedness. But it also engages with the problem of how the public more generally, including researchers, can trouble the opacity of many of these investments, which often remain messy, hidden from the public and statistically unaccounted for. The section also troubles the operations of agri-finance investment themselves and opens debates about alternative food futures.

Poo Protest, Southland. Source: Ouma 2018.