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Foro Global sobre Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutrición • Foro FSN

Re: Examining the linkages between trade and food security: What is your experience?

Susan Bragdon and Ekaterina Krivonos
Susan Bragdon and Ekaterina Krivonosfacilitators of the discussion

Dear participants,

We are now at the end of our discussion and we wanted to thank you for rich, detailed and thought-provoking inputs. They certainly provide motivation for further thinking, discussion and debate.

The discussion has also highlighted the need for more analysis as well.  Of course, different desires, motivations and interests can be the cause of a difference of opinion or a perspective on an outcome.  But we note that sometimes the existing data and evidence are missing so an assertion is in fact more of a supposition on cause and effect rather than something that can be substantiated on current knowledge.  Hopefully this dialogue will help us in defining ripe areas for future analysis!

We both have particularly enjoyed and learned a great deal from the experiences in specific regions, countries and projects.  We were pleased that so many of you took the time to share your experience, using that to address the questions posed.  For us, it is this kind of sharing that makes online consultations like the FSN so valuable (thank you to FAO and FSN!!)  Many of you have highlighted certain lessons that can only be learned from hands-on experience, and we highly value that. For example, the situation in the Near East and North Africa region as explained by Isin Tellioglu and the case of peanut trade in Senegal and Cameroon shared by Lal Manavado.

Many problems with trade have been highlighted, including land grabs, resource degradation and the loss of small farmers’ livelihoods due to the changing structure of agricultural production and trade, skewed towards large farms and corporations. Ekaterina wonders if trade, in this case, is the root of these problems, or these are wider issues that need comprehensive policy response and certainly a more stringent regulation to correct directly for the market failures that cause them. 

We both note how many contributors spoke of the need for a need for more coherence between trade rules and food security measures.  Dr. Mishra calls for trade rules to give priority to food security measures.  After giving us some historical perspective, Jasmin Marston calls for a realignment towards a fairer trading systems where agriculture and food security are concerned.  Andrew MacMillon feels it is wrong to blame global trade rules for the fact that more than half the world’s population is malnourished but goes on to say that trade rules are not helping matters.  Professor Dhar appreciated the moderators raising the issue of non-trade measures and states “carving out non-trade measures is indeed a task that the trade regime has not addressed despite being asked to on numerous occasions.”  He specifically notes that the architects of the WTO AoA stated in the preamble to the Agreement that the “reform programme [initiated by the AoA] should be made in an equitable way among all Members, having regard to non-trade concerns, including food security…”

Ekaterina felt that a lot of the debate focused on protecting domestic farmers from external competition, which is only one side of the story. In addressing food insecurity, she argues that one should not neglect the income opportunities that trade provides, including those for the rural poor. There are many positive and well-documented cases that deserve attention. This is not to say that the gains are automatic or that everyone gains from trade. On the contrary, these cases show what is needed from market participants and government institutions to succeed in seizing the opportunities in trade, and that it is essential to ensure that producers benefit from the export earnings.

Another point Ekaterina would like to make is that the implications of trade agreements for domestic agricultural policy are often overestimated. Under the current domestic support rules of the WTO, there is still substantial space for supporting agriculture in developing countries. Countries should indeed have the liberty to design their agricultural policies as they see fit, to achieve their food security goals. However, if they also want to benefit from market access in other countries, they would be expected to offer something in exchange. That is the underlying principle of any international public good. What becomes critical then, is what type of support should be provided, to whom and through which means. In general, one of the weakest points in this regard has been the lacking support to infrastructure, market development and supporting the farmers to get organized, working through cooperatives or other structures, to professionalize their marketing functions and integrate vertically, capturing a larger share of the value added generated in the sector.

Susan appreciated the exchange around whether or not a food security strategy that explicitly included support for small-scale farmers in agro-biodiverse settings could be compatible with a global market-based approach to food security.  Several contributors simply said no, that global markets undermine small-scale farmers in agrobioverse settings.  This related to many of the posts on the need for coherence and non-trade measures to promote food security.  Susan is uncertain of the role that global markets can play in overall food security without non-trade measures. It is not a trade or anti-trade or a market or anti-market stance.  It is about understanding the appropriate role and boundaries of the different approaches.  Raising incomes is not synonymous with food security though this sometimes underlies pro-market stances. 

And returning to her well-worn subject, small-scale farmers in agrobiodiverse setting, Susan argues that food security over the long run will require support to these systems and an ability to prioritize measures related to them over trade rules.  Our world is facing increasing and unpredictable change. The best defence against unpredictability is diversity. The vast majority of genetic and species diversity is maintained on-farm in the form of diverse portfolios of landrace varieties and crop wild relatives adapted to local conditions and continuing to evolve in situ. However, the shift away from traditional production systems and the cultivation of landrace varieties (FAO 2010) has resulted in a loss of 75 percent of plant genetic diversity, and is most reported in the case of cereals where modern breeding efforts are most concentrated. Wale et al (2011) explain that farmers have financial incentives to replace diverse sets of landrace varieties with monocultures of uniform, high-yielding varieties, and abandon traditional agricultural systems. Repercussions will be felt in terms of nutrition, resilience against environmental stress and loss of traditional knowledge.  Just to be clear, modern varieties can offer immense public benefit. However the paradox remains: breeding new varieties adapted to increasing and erratic global change is predicated on the availability of allelic variation within and between crop species, while their dissemination contributes to the erosion of this diversity.  Insofar as trade and market incentives result in the replacement of landrace varieties, long-term food security requires measures to balance and support these systems.

One area that certainly needs more reliable evidence and analysis is the implication of trade for diets and nutrition. Some situations mentioned by the contributors raise red flags, as worsening nutrition is sometimes a result of greater involvement in trade. Ekaterina points out that in such cases it would be useful to understand what the underlying problem is – if incomes from exporting cash crops rise, presumably this additional income (in households that benefit) should be spent on more nutritional products. So the question becomes: Are these products not available? Or is this a question of educating households about nutrition, choices, food preparation? When Ekaterina worked in the FAO Regional Office in Santiago, Chile, there was a wonderful initiative that involved renowned chefs, who published easy recipes and demonstrated to the wider population how to cook nutritious and tasty food with relatively low-cost products: Beans, maize, potatoes. We also worked closely with street markets on promoting fruit and vegetable consumption through awareness raising actions. These types of initiatives can make a big difference.  

As Ann Steensland mentions, “trade cannot address all of the socio-economic and political challenges that influence food security and nutrition”, but we think this discussion demonstrated that there is certainly a relationship, whether positive or negative. It is a challenge for researchers, policy makers, NGOs, farmers and consumers to figure out the priorities and the policy actions in each particular country case.

As we noted in the start of this summary, there is a need for more information and analysis. As Dr. Mishra elegantly and succinctly put it:

  • First, the points of intersection between food security and the agreement should be clarified.
  • Second, the relationship between international commitments to food security and commitments to trade liberalization must be assessed in order to have coherence.
  • Third, ways to broaden the definition of food security and its application within trade agreements should be explored.

As your moderators, we apologize for not being able to call out each one of your contributions individually in our comments and in this summary.  We have both learned a lot and you have given us both a lot to think about in our work.  We hope you all feel the same way.

Thank you so much for your participation and we are glad to keep up the conversation bilaterally if you want to contact either of us individually.

All the best,

Susan and Ekaterina