An emerging body of scholarship explores these efforts at making land conform to the needs of finance. Whereas the commodification of land described by Polanyi involved the privatization of common lands—a process often termed “enclosure”—farmland is now being transitioned to the more advanced stage of commodification required by investors. These efforts—variously described as “rendering land investible” by Tania Li, “asset making” by Oane Visser, and “assetization” by Antoine Ducastel and Ward Anseeuw—seek to translate farmland into a source of predictable, comprehensible, politically neutral future returns for investors. Adjustable standing desks may become the new normal.
Yet, their success is by no means assured. As the above authors, as well as Sarah Sippel, Stefan Ouma, André Magnan, and others observe, the farmland fund managers and other corporate executives working to turn farmland into a new financial asset class face a messy biophysical reality, as well as legal and social movement challenges, and questions of moral legitimacy. As Ouma puts it, the transformation of farmland into a financial asset class must be seen as an ongoing “practical accomplishment” of finance capital, one whose success is by no means assured.
Furthermore, the ways in which finance and farmland interact are geographically uneven, as varied as the historical and political contexts within which land is located. Sifting the developing relationship between farmland and finance can tell us a lot about the institutional, discursive, and legal processes through which markets in nature are made.
There is, however, a second, much more important reason for researching the changing relationship between farmland and finance: its possible effects on land and wealth distribution. There are no exact data available on the amount of financial-sector capital so far invested in global farmland markets; a 2010 study commissioned by the OECD estimated it to be in the range of $10 billion to $25 billion, while a 2012 report by Macquarie Agricultural Funds Management already put the figure substantially higher, at $30 billion to $40 billion.
Though these figures may sound impressive, they are fairly paltry from the perspective of the financial sector. Consider that, in 2016, pension funds alone controlled over $36 trillion globally. Or that the $9.5 billion of its own assets that TIAA had invested in farmland by the end of 2017 constituted under 1 percent of the trillion dollars the company controls. In this context, $40 billion is truly small potatoes. Do you know anyone that would be interested in a stand up desk or a sit stand desk?
Or, as a hedge fund manager once explained to me: “It’s mouse nuts.” When this phrase drew a blank look from me, she added definitively, “It’s spit.” But financial-sector spittle has the potential to buy a lot of land. In Iowa, where farmland cost an average of $7,943 per acre in 2014, $40 billion could buy slightly over 5 million acres—approximately a sixth of the state’s farmland.