Who really controls our food and water? Here are the 6 most shocking revelations from "The Grab"

Governments, major companies and mercenaries are scrambling to grab the world's remaining food and water resources

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published June 17, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Big farm tractor tilling dusty Springtime fields (Getty Images/JamesBrey)
Big farm tractor tilling dusty Springtime fields (Getty Images/JamesBrey)

The next world war may be fought over food and water.

That’s what agripreneur Edward Hargroves predicts in “The Grab,” a new documentary thriller from “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Over the course of six years, the documentary spotlights Nathan "Nate" Halverson, an Emmy-winning reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting, who has been looking into a dire global trend in which governments, financial investors, and private security forces are quietly acquiring the world’s last remaining food and water resources. From China’s acquisition of a major pork producer in the US to Russia’s importation of American cows, grass, and even cowboys, the examples are both vast and plentiful. Food and water are basic necessities for mankind. However, because there isn't enough arable land on Earth to accommodate for a growing population in the near future, the value of such natural resources is now astounding.

“The 20th century had Opec,” said Halverson in the film. “In the future, we’re going to have Food Pec.”

For Halverson and his team, their investigation is still a work in progress. The revelations that have been made are enough to conclude that the international scramble for food, water, and farmland is very much real. And various parties — whether that’s nations, major companies, or mercenaries — are doing whatever it takes to “grab” the most resources possible.

“As food and water become more precious, countries are looking to grab up that resource for themselves, whether it’s to wield power or whether to make sure they’re feeding their people,” Halverson said. “And so the question is, what countries are doing this? Where are they doing it? And how are they doing it?”

Here are the six biggest moments from the documentary:

China’s takeover of the world’s biggest pork producer raises some eyebrows

In 2013, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, was acquired by a Hong Kong-based company called WH Group (formerly known as Shuanghui International) for nearly $5 billion. The business deal was the largest-ever Chinese acquisition of an American company, thus prompting lawmakers and the media to wonder whether a hidden player was involved. Smithfield Foods’ CEO at the time, Larry Pope, told Congress that the Chinese government was not behind WH Group’s purchase. However, Halverson proved that untrue. While on a reporting trip to WH Group’s headquarters, Halverson obtained a secret document that revealed the government-owned Bank of China approved the hefty loan to buy Smithfield in a single day. The document also specified that the Bank had a “social responsibility” in backing the deal for “national strategy.”         


When a similar story was uncovered — this time involving several Saudi-owned companies making profit off of acquired land in Arizona’s La Paz County — Halverson picked up on a pattern:   


“Other countries around the world were growing increasingly worried about food and water,” he said in the documentary. “And their strategies was to buy and purchase and grab other countries’ food and water supplies.”

Global climate change is expected to benefit Russia’s agriculture and food supply

Russian officials have proclaimed that Russia will benefit from climate change, which they say will expand the growing season in certain parts of the nation. But scientists argued the opposite, saying that rising temperatures would exacerbate the environmental impacts already plaguing Russia, including flooding, heat waves, drought, and wildfires.


“Some Russian cities in high-latitude regions report infrastructure damage from thawing permafrost and soil instability for up to 80 percent of buildings and for pipelines,” according to researchers and members of the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia (PONARS) in a February study.


Russian officials, however, have disregarded the consequences and instead, are encouraging citizens to view the impacts in a positive light. Despite the warnings, officials believe high temperatures will provide a more livable climate along with a year-round Arctic sea route.


Additionally, Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine further intensifies its climate consequences, scientists said. “The humanitarian disaster is of the utmost importance — the number of deaths and structures that were destroyed — but the collateral damage is intense destruction to the atmosphere,” explained Debra Javeline, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.

Russia’s cattle supply could provide geopolitical power

As explained by Halverson, when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, cows were slaughtered in huge numbers, causing the number of cattle in Russia to plummet. When Putin came to power in 1999, he decided to rebuild Russia’s cattle herd. “Not just to feed Russians, but to give Russia geopolitical power,” Halverson said. 


According to some Russian officials, cattle will award the nation more strength in their oil reserves and weapons. 


“Of course, it’s food that has become…much more powerful than oil. And in the future, food will be driving the world. It’s for sure,” said Viktor Linnik, the founder of Miratorg Agribusiness Holding, a privately-held Russian agribusiness company based in Moscow. “[I]n the future, for Russia, the driver will be agriculture. We will feed all the world.”

The dehumanizing email exchanged between Erik Prince and his right-hand man

Amid their reporting, Halverson and his team uncovered another alarming story, one concerning displaced farmers in Zambia. The farmers, who have lived and farmed for generations in their homeland, were being expelled by mercenary militias via a deeds system that allocated the land to commercial farms controlled by outside parties in a slew of nations, including the US and China. The displacement effort is “the new colonization of Africa,” said Brigadier “Brig” Siachitema, a Zambian human rights lawyer who is advocating for communities that have lost their rightful land.


There isn’t a sole villain fueling the displacements. Rather, an intricate yet obscure network of private contractors is at play, “a Russian doll of LLCs and LLCs” who are controlling these farms, explained Halverson in the film. Halverson and his team gained access to a collection of emails within the private equity firm Frontier Services Group (FSG), which was founded and led by Erik Prince, who was also behind the private military contractor Blackwater. In one particular email exchanged between Prince and Sean Rump — a partner at Prince's FSG — it’s made clear that African land will be taken in any way possible, even if it comes at the expense of innocent lives.


“If you come across some run over, shot, or otherwise f**ked up native, say a prayer for them. You don’t help injured, bleeding people in Africa. AIDS, Hep A, B and C and a myriad of ailments that keep their life expectancy around 42 is to be avoided at all costs. People die in the third world. It’s Darwin selection at its most pure,” the email read.


“With a story like this, you’re also dealing with the fact that you’re witnessing the callousness of the way we’re seeing people treat other humans,” Halverson said. “It gets to you after a while.”

Erik Prince resigned from FSG shortly after United Nations report

In 2021, a United Nations report alleged Erik Prince violated an arms embargo on Libya. The confidential report, obtained by The New York Times and The Washington Post, said Prince deployed a force of foreign mercenaries and weapons to military commander Khalifa Haftar, who has fought to overthrow the UN-recognised Libyan government, in 2019.


Shortly after, on April 13, 2021, Prince resigned from his positions as executive director and deputy chairman of Frontier Services Group. Six days later, Prince’s longtime attorney and business associate took a seat on the company’s board, the documentary said in its conclusion.

There is enough water in the world to grow enough food to feed the world, per Halverson
“There is enough water in the world to grow enough calories to feed everyone in the world. Not just today, but in the year 2050 when there’s nine billion people and when there’s 10 billion people. The intelligence community says this is solvable. Engineers say this is solvable. If we solve it," Halverson said.

"The Grab" is out in theaters and on-demand June 14th. Watch a trailer for the documentary below, via YouTube:


By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Agriculture Documentary Food System Gabriela Cowperthwaite List Nathan Halverson The Grab Water Supply