‘The big story of the 21st century’: is this the most shocking documentary of the year?

<span>‘There’s no doctrine for what we’re going through right now. It’s just capitalism’ … a scene from The Grab.</span><span>Photograph: Magnolia</span>
‘There’s no doctrine for what we’re going through right now. It’s just capitalism’ … a scene from The Grab.Photograph: Magnolia

In 2013, the US food conglomerate Smithfield Foods – the country’s largest pork producer and maker of the famous holiday ham – was sold to a Hong Kong-based company called WH Group in a deal worth $7.1bn. It was the largest ever Chinese acquisition of an American company; virtually overnight, WH Group, formerly called Shuanghui International, gained ownership of nearly one in four American pigs. Such a huge business deal did not go unnoticed; news coverage and an eventual congressional hearing questioned the sale with a mix of good, old-fashioned American xenophobia and reasonable concern for the nation’s food supply. But in the eyes of most people, and certainly most American consumers, the Smithfield Foods sale remained just that: a one-off business deal, if they were aware of it at all.

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For Nate Halverson, a journalist with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) out of Emeryville, California, the Smithfield deal was the first point in a much wider and concerning pattern – though the company’s CEO, Larry Pope, assured Congress that the Chinese government was not behind WH Group’s purchase, Halverson found evidence to the contrary on a reporting trip to the company’s headquarters: a secret document, marked not for distribution in the United States, detailing every dollar of the deal, and the state-run Bank of China’s “social responsibility” in backing it for “national strategy”.

A similar national security motivation undergirded Saudi-backed land purchases in such disparate regions as Arizona and Zambia, or Russia’s import of American cowboys to manage its state-incentivized cattle herds. These seemingly unrelated developments form The Grab, a riveting new documentary which outlines, with startling clarity, the move by national governments, financial investors and private security forces to snap up food and water resources. “At some point you’re like, ‘Oh my God, how is this not the story?’” Halverson said. We’re just seeing the early stages of what’s going to be the big story of the 21st century.”

The Grab, from the Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and filmed over the course of six years, captures the CIR team’s developing understanding of the pattern in real time, connecting Halverson’s Smithfield reporting in 2015 to a New York investment company’s purchase of Arkansas farmland to supply Hong Kong, WikiLeaks cables detailing how Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah ordered national companies to buy up resources abroad to drained aquifers in Arizona, and a leaked trove of emails from a private security company to displaced farmers in Zambia. The notches in the pattern are geographically disparate and murky, but they underscore one point: what oil was to the 20th century, food and water will be to the 21st – precious, geopolitically powerful and contested. “The 20th century had Opec,” says Halverson in the film. “In the future, we’re going to have Food Pec.”

That trend is already under way, from Mexico’s avocado militias to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which the film argues was motivated, in part, by Putin’s desire to control a bread basket. The Grab has the feeling of a revelation, though the reveal is not a conspiracy; the pattern is less a plan than a series of reactions, from a variety of actors, to the fact that every single human needs food and water, and there is not enough arable land on Earth for the projected increase of 2 billion people by 2050. The instinct, on a primal and national level, is to hoard.

The Grab, and the CIR team’s reporting, bounces between the multinational and obscure – offshore accounts, shell companies, redacted documents – and the clear and local. Cowperthwaite and her team traveled to rural La Paz county, Arizona, where a Saudi company bought about 15 square miles of farmland. According to residents, the farm’s operations are hidden – “it’s like their own little world,” says the county supervisor Holly Irwin in the film. But the farm, supplying hay to the Gulf state, has demonstrably drained the region’s aquifers beyond a generation’s worth of rain – legal under Arizona law, which is does not regulate the use of groundwater. Residents describe going without water, discovering empty wells, their houses cracked and sinking, with little recourse.

The film connects their confusion to the despair of Zambian farmers displaced, via a complicated and westernized deeds system, by mercenary militias to make way for commercial farmland controlled by outside actors from various countries – China, Gulf states, the US. The scramble to obtain farmland at the expense of local residents represents “the new colonization of Africa”, says Brigadier “Brig” Siachitema, a Zambian lawyer fighting for indigenous property rights. The Grab hears from farmers with horrific tales of displacement – prolonged homelessness, the death of a toddler from the cold, bulldozed ancestral burial sites. The culprit is not one country or company but a shadowy network of mercenary interests, farms backed by “a Russian doll of LLCs and LLCs”, says Halverson in the film. “And the more we dig, the more it becomes clear – that could be owned by anybody.”

Halverson and his team did dig into it, eventually obtaining what they refer to, cautiously, as “the trove”: a year’s worth of emails within the private equity firm Frontier Resource Group, founded by Erik Prince, who also founded and was the CEO of the military contracting company Blackwater – a notorious mercenary group during the US invasion of Iraq – and the brother of former Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos. The emails, from 2012, reveal a clear plan to obtain, by whatever means necessary, land in Africa to fulfill competing national interests; the CIR team eventually pieces together that one of Prince’s backers was Sheikh Tahnoon, a member of the Emirati royal family, as well as China.

They also reveal a chilling disregard for human life – “people die in the third world. It’s Darwin selection at its most pure,” reads one email. And they rope the CIR team into what feels, at times, like an espionage film. At one point, Halverson, Cowperthwaite and their team are inexplicably denied entry to Zambia despite visas and media credentials; their names appear on a cork board in the detention room, suggesting someone placed a call. Fittingly, Cowperthwaite styles The Grab, and particularly the group’s handling of “the trove”, as more eco-thriller than environmental film, in order to reach as many people as possible. “If you use the words ‘climate change’, in a lot of these films, 50% of the country turns off,” she said. “The people that need to be hearing this are not just in blue states and not in this sort of environmentalist echo chamber, but just people, farmers who are walking out and seeing their wells dry.”

Halverson, and the film, has a clear mission statement: if you can see the pattern, if you can recognize “the grab” and humanity’s vast, daunting interconnectedness, you can begin to strategize for a better, less mercenary world. “From the perspective of a journalist, I just want people to have great information,” said Halverson, “because right now the people that have this information are the CIA, and Wall Street, and foreign governments and very wealthy people.”

While the first two-thirds of The Grab unmask the pattern, the final third unravels the fear and overwhelming pressure to submit to it with efforts to push back: a bipartisan movement in Arizona to curb unlimited water usage, legal wins in Zambia to restore land and pay restitution. For viewers in the developed west, “there’s plenty of stuff that we can do as individuals,” said Cowperthwaite: eat less meat, reduce food waste, buy less. And on a policy level, Cowperthwaite hopes the film can push for the formation of a US national water center, to manage water supply, rights and strategy. “There’s no doctrine for what we’re going through right now. It’s just capitalism,” she said.

The Grab suggests doom, and the climate emergency is here, formidable and devastating. But the question of producing enough food to feed the planet is “totally solvable”, said Halverson. “There’s enough water to grow enough food, to make enough calories to feed everybody on the planet today.” The question, instead, is whether people can see the problems and overcome self-interest or profit motives to solve them. “The hope with the film is that we’ve connected together the pieces so that people can see the problem,” said Halverson, “and with good information now in hand, we can all begin to work and put together a world that we all want to live in.”

  • The Grab is out in US cinemas and on demand on 14 June with a UK date to be announced