The race for land, water and perhaps a captive food market is on. Or so says a new study published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A Science Daily report calls the new research “the first global quantitative assessment of the water-grabbing phenomenon,” the process of some nations and many large corporations buying up property and available water resources in less wealthy and often underdeveloped countries. The study suggests such land-grabbing may put a strain on land and water resources in countries where the strategy has been in practice for a number of years.

The study represents the joint work of researchers at the University of Virginia and the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy. Researchers claim land-grabbing has been a common practice in recent years but has escalated at an alarming rate since 2009 in direct response to a rapid increase in world food prices, and they suggest if the practice continues unchecked or unregulated, it could lead to undesirable results for local communities in many underdeveloped nations.

According to the official study, societal pressure on the global land and freshwater resources is increasing as a result of the rising food demand by the growing human population, dietary changes, and the enhancement of biofuel production induced by rising oil prices and recent changes in United States and European Union bioethanol policies.

Many countries and corporations have started or are continuing a policy of acquiring relatively inexpensive and productive agricultural land located in foreign countries, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in the number of transnational land deals between 2005 and 2009. Often known as “land-grabbing,” this phenomenon is associated with an appropriation of freshwater resources “that has never been assessed before.”

“Here we gather land-grabbing data from multiple sources and use a hydrological model to determine the associated rates of freshwater grabbing. We find that land and water grabbing are occurring at alarming rates in all continents except Antarctica. The per capita volume of grabbed water often exceeds the water requirements for a balanced diet and would be sufficient to improve food security and abate malnourishment in the grabbed countries,” writes researcher Maria Cristina Rulli,Assistant Professor, Department of Hydraulic, Roadways, Environmental, and Surveying Engineering, Politecnico di Milano.

The study shows that foreign land acquisition is a global phenomenon, involving 62 grabbed countries and 41 grabbers. The study reveals Africa and Asia account for 47 percent and 33 percent of the global grabbed area, respectively, and about 90 percent of the grabbed area is in 24 countries.

Indonesia, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo represent the countries most affected by the highest rates of land/water grabbing. As far as who is doing the grabbing, the report indicates the countries most active are located in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Europe and North America. The study further indicates about 60 percent of the total grabbed water is appropriated through land grabbing by companies in the United States, United Arab Emirates, India, United Kingdom, Egypt, China and Israel.

The study is quick to point out that one of the major problems associated with large, foreign agriculture land expansion is that in most cases where land has been acquired, there is a switch from natural ecosystems such as forests and savannas and from small-holder agriculture run by local communities to large-scale commercial farming run by foreign corporations that may not be sensitive to local needs. But the study also offers the possibility that such large farming operations may provide employment opportunity in countries where there are high levels of poverty and unemployment.

Researcher Paolo D'Odorico, co-author of the study, says one negative effect of land-grabbing is that local populations are often excluded from the direct use and management of their land and water resources. He says foreign land acquisitions could lead to overuse of water and land with negative effects on the environment, whereas “local small-holder farmers are often in a better position to be good stewards and managers of their land and water.

“By losing control of part of their land and water, in many cases local people are giving up to wealthier nations their most precious natural resources – resources that could be used now or in the future to enhance their own food security,” D’Odorico said.

He advises that both the United Nations and the national governments involved should ensure that some of the wealth generated by foreign investments in agricultural land be used to benefit local populations.