Pension Funds: Key Players in the Global Farmland Grab

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Large scale agricultural land acquisitions are generating conflicts and controversies around the world. A growing body of reports show that these projects are bad for local communities and that they promote the wrong kind of agriculture for a world in the grips of serious food and environmental crises. 1 Yet funds continue to flow to overseas farmland like iron to a magnet. Why? Because of the financial returns. And some of the biggest players looking to profit from farmland are pension funds, with billions of dollars invested.

Pension funds currently juggle US$23 trillion in assets, of which some US$100 billion are believed to be invested in commodities. Of this money in commodities, some US$5–15 billion are reportedly going into farmland acquisitions. By 2015, these commodity and farmland investments are expected to double.

Pension funds are supposed to be working for workers, helping to keep their retirement savings safe until a later date. For this reason alone, there should be a level of public or other accountability involved when it comes to investment strategies and decisions. In other words, pension funds may be one of the few classes of land grabbers that people can pull the plug on, by sheer virtue of the fact that it is their money. This makes pension funds a particularly important target for action by social movements, labour groups and citizens’ organisations.

The size & weight of pensions

Today, people’s pensions are often managed by private companies on behalf of unions, governments, individuals or employers. These companies are responsible for safeguarding and “growing” people’s pension savings, so that these can be paid out to workers in monthly cheques after they retire. Anyone lucky enough both to have a job and to be able to squirrel away some income for retirement probably has a pension being administered by one firm or another. Globally, this is big money. Pension funds are currently juggling US$23 trillion in assets. 2 The biggest pension funds in the world are those held by governments, such as Japan, Norway, the Netherlands, Korea and the US (see Table 1).

Table 1: World’s top 20 pension funds (2010)




Total assets (US$ millions)

1 Government Pension Investment Japan


2 Government Pension Fund–Global Norway


3 ABP Netherlands


4 National Pension Korea


5 Federal Retirement Thrift US


6 California Public Employees US


7 Local Government Officials Japan


8 California State Teachers US


9 New York State Common US


10 PFZW (now PGGM) Netherlands


11 Central Provident Fund Singapore


12 Canada Pension Canada


13 Florida State Board US


14 National Social Security China


15 Pension Fund Association Japan


16 ATP Denmark


17 New York City Retirement US


18 GEPF South Africa


19 Employees Provident Fund Malaysia


20 General Motors US


Source: Pensions & Investments, 6 September 2010, P&I/Towers Watson World 300      

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