China, home to 20 percent of the world’s population but only 8 percent of the world’s arable land, has gone abroad in search of farmland. In Africa alone, Chinese “friendship farms” grow cabbages in the Democratic Republic of Congo, raise fish in Angola, or harvest sesame seeds, cashews and peanuts in Mozambique.

These purchases are often described as a kind of neocolonialism unique to China. So it might surprise you that the U.S. and the U.K. are basically on par with China when it comes to buying and leasing land in other countries.

Researchers at Lund University in Sweden found that most of the world's countries had bought or sold land internationally as of 2012 – 126 of the 195 countries recognized by the UN, according to their report. But the trade is dominated by just a few players, namely China, the U.K. and the U.S.

The global land trade also appears to reflect the uneven power relationship between the rich and the poor. With a few notable exceptions, the more developed countries of North America and Europe, Asia’s emerging economies, and the oil exporters of the Middle East are the ones buying up land, while the countries selling land are poorer nations in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe.

The map below shows where governments and agribusinesses are buying and leasing land in foreign countries. Countries that are more engaged in buying land internationally are shown in grey or shades of yellow, while countries that sell more land are shown in red. The bigger the circle, the more trading partners a country has.

This graphic shows the top 20 countries in the global land trade network, ordered by the largest number of trading partners. The gray bars indicate “imports” – where the country listed is buying another country’s land – while the red bars indicate “exports,” or countries that are selling their land.

China ranks as the most active country in the world in land trade, purchasing land from 33 countries and but selling it to only three. The U.S. is a close second, buying land from 28 countries and selling to three, following by the U.K., which bought land from 30 countries.

The next three most active countries, Brazil, Australia and Ethiopia, are all net sellers of their land. Argentina, the Philippines, Sudan, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania and Russia have also sold land to more countries than they have bought from. Singapore and the Netherlands, densely populated areas with limited agricultural land, are also net purchasers, as are Germany, India, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and South Africa.

The amount of land being bought and sold internationally is small, but definitely not insignificant. According to a study published in 2013, about 0.75-1.75 percent of the world’s agricultural land has been exchanged through international deals. That total is likely to increase in coming years, as the world population grows, living standards continue to rise, and constraints on water and other natural resources increase.

Buying and selling land abroad is what some describe as "virtual trade" -- in a sense, countries can import things that aren't tradable, like water, land and even pollution, through the mix of goods and services they buy and sell abroad. So a country that has relatively little fresh water can "import" it by buying water-intensive crops and products, like meat or paper.

Virtual trade can be a very good thing: It can allow countries to specialize in products for which they have the necessary resources. Countries with abundant farmland, like Brazil, the U.S. and Australia, can help feed the world and be rewarded for it.

But there can also drawbacks to this kind of exchange. For one, it can lead to the poor use of domestic resources. (This is one reason why there's such an outcry against California’s exports of water-rich products, like almonds and pistachios, to countries like China, in the midst of the state's historic drought.)

Virtual trade also increases the risk of rich countries capturing the resources that poorer countries need for their own development. Given growing populations and the imminent threat of climate change, it's not hard to imagine that competition for agricultural land will increase in the future. Just in the last few years, the rising cost of oil and a spike in food prices in 2008 pushed more countries to purchase farmland abroad, according to the researchers. And developing and selling agricultural land can take its own toll on the host country, including a loss in biodiversity, an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, and more water use.

Another concern is that, once our global agricultural systems are linked, certain kinds of disasters could be exported abroad, just like the financial crisis was in 2008. An environmental or geopolitical crisis in Ethiopia could result in higher food prices in Saudi Arabia, the researchers say. It's all a consequence of our shrinking planet.

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