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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - High food prices fueled a land-buying spree in developing nations, particularly in Africa, by countries and private investors wanting to assure food supplies for themselves, a think tank said on Wednesday.
The International Food Policy Research Institute said 15 million to 20 million hectares of farmland in poor nations were sold since 2006, or were under negotiation for sale to foreign entities.
Global recession may slow, but not end, the drive for farmland as a safeguard, said IFPRI Director General Joachim von Braun.
"Food prices will rise again and investment opportunities from a commercial perspective will increase again," he said during a telephone news conference.
The spate of land purchases "is truly a consequence" of the abrupt increase in food prices in 2007 and 2008, and by fears that stockpiles would run short, von Braun said.
The purchases increased local land prices, he said, because comparatively small amounts of land go on sale each year.
IFPRI listed more than four dozen land deals in a report about the "land grabbing." Most were in Africa and some in Asia.
"Food-importing countries with land and water constraints but rich in capital, such as the Gulf states, are at the forefront of new investments in farmland abroad," the report said.
"In addition, countries with large populations and food security concerns such as China, South Korea and India are seeking opportunities to produce food overseas," it said.
Foreign investment may result in improved productivity and more income for residents, said the report, but it also can be seen as an intrusion and a threat to local food output.
An attempt by a South Korean company to buy 1.3 million hectares in Madagascar "reportedly played a role in the political conflicts" before a government overthrow last month, the report said.
IFPRI recommended a code of conduct for investors and host governments.
"Free, prior and informed consent is the standard to be upheld" in deal-making, said the report, with "particular efforts" toward fair treatment of land users who have traditional access to land but do not own it.
The World Bank has said it will soon publish guidelines to help investors and countries make mutually beneficial deals.
"The majority of agricultural land in Africa is not titled," said Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a senior research fellow at IFPRI. "If these rights are not respected in these transactions, the livelihoods of millions of people will be put at risk."
The report is available in full at www.ifpri.org
Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Christian Wiessner