Food Security and International Trade Law


Food security was a term introduced in the mid-1970s in light of the global food crisis which led to increased grain prices and rampant hunger.The term was limited to food supply at the international level. Food security was defined at the UN World Food conference in 1974 as: ‘availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices’. By 1981, Amartya Sen’s work on causes of famine showed that hunger was dependent on food access and not only food availability. This led to a modified definition of food security which included ‘access to food to all people at all times.’ The World Bank Report in 1986 on Poverty and Hunger elucidated that food security does not depend on only upon self-sufficiency. Understanding of the term food security has been refined through the decades to include nutritional and cultural dimensions.

Today, food security is a condition which exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Food security stands on four pillars- availability, access, utilization, and stability.

There have been shifts in understandings of food security over the past century. Analysis has expanded to consider both global and individual levels, as well as multiple dimensions of hunger and malnutrition. But these newer ideas did not completely supplant older ideas about food security that were rooted in production and self-sufficiency at the national level.

Trade in food has also undergone a drastic change through the centuries. The advent of food security and trade can be located to 1815 when the UK adopted ‘corn laws’ by increasing import duty so as to promote self-sufficiency and protect its farmers. By 1846, the Corn Law era came to an end and countries preached free trade in food and agricultural products. This, however, was very taxing to the economy of developed nations due to which countries like US-promoted ‘food exceptionalism’ in which there was a complex system for agricultural trade.

Global food crises have caused many countries to come up with means to enhance domestic food security. Countries like Asia and Africa have announced plans to become more self-sufficient in food in order to reduce reliance on global markets for food supply. However, this is seen as harming rather than enhancing food security. Trade advocates have stated that more trade ensures better food security. Those taking this viewpoint do not necessarily call for completely “free trade” in food and agriculture. Rather, they support the idea of trade liberalization to reduce distortions in the sector.

International trade can improve food security in leaps and bounds. Trade increases food ‘availability’ in the world by enabling supply to meet demand and by broadening the source of supply; makes food products ‘more affordable’ for the poorest populations on the planet by intensifying international competition and encouraging economic growth and increases the ‘diversity’ of foodstuffs hence allowing foodstuffs to be available all year round.

For example, the serious droughts and fires that occurred in Australia in 2008 and 2009 stopped Australia from honoring a large number of grain delivery contracts it had signed, but thanks to international trade other countries rapidly stepped in to make up for the resultant shortfall. Countries such as the Ukraine played a vital role. Egypt which was hit by drought was provided grains as a form of ‘virtual water’ via trade in agricultural produce. Countries like Saudi Arabia which have an arid climate are able to meet its need for grains without depletion of economic and water resources

Developed countries devote between 15 and 20 percent of their income to food. Developing countries food still accounts for between 50 and 60 percent of the average citizen’s income. Bangladesh and India now only represents 50 percent of income, as against 64 percent in 1990, but 50 percent is still a very high figure. The affordability of food produce is still a major preoccupation around the world.

Agricultural produce only accounts for 4 to 6 percent of world trade, and that two-thirds of this trade has nothing to do with subsistence farming but instead concerns transformed and semi-transformed products.

The relationship between food security and international trade is highly complex and policy directions are not always straightforward or unified across countries. There are many factors to consider. For example, trade barriers can restrict food availability in regions experiencing food deficits, leading to higher prices and reduced access to food. High levels of subsidy support to agriculture in some countries can put downward pressure on world prices and reduce incomes for other agricultural exporters. Lower food prices that result from subsidy support may benefit urban consumers in importing countries at the same time they may hurt farmers’ incomes in those same countries. But extreme reliance on imported food can bring vulnerability to external shocks, such as price spikes that can overwhelm a country’s import bills in a short period of time. Over-reliance on agricultural exports as a primary source of foreign exchange also has its risks, including the possibilities of prolonged price declines, or conversely, highly volatile prices, both of which impact the food security of producers. How governments navigate these concerns via trade policy depends on their own unique situation.

That advocating agricultural trade liberalization, including the World Bank, the WTO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and a number of industrialized countries, see trade as an opportunity to enhance food security. Those skeptical of trade liberalization, including some groups of developing country governments, the food sovereignty social movement, and a number of civil society organizations, tend to see trade as a threat to food security. Both supporters and skeptics of trade liberalization base their arguments on particular ideas and understandings about food security, agricultural trade, and their relationship to one another, which they explain through distinct narratives that outline their reasoning.

The conflict between trade liberalization versus food exceptionalism has led to deadlocked policy regarding food security. To determine the role of international trade in food security, the conflict needs to be resolved so that there can be sustainable access to food to all, by all.


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