Effect of Trade on Food Security
In most societies today, there is an intense, and at times absurd, division of labour. And while environmental degradation continues apace, world population continues to increase. It is within this framework that we ought to try to understand the effect of trade on food security.
Division of labour gives rise to a set of secondary needs connected with our nutritional needs. Other things being equal, trade is concerned with enabling us to satisfy those secondary needs, for instance, making food physically accessible (by placing it in shops, storing it until needed, and transporting it, etc).
Therefore, it may be argued that trade plays an important part in giving us food security, especially as proper storage of food, packaging, and transport are costly and complex operations. This is true as far as it goes, but trade is not motivated neither by a desire to observe the 'golden mean', nor yet by altruism. It is this aspect of trade that can turn it a threat to food security.
When there are no clear legal limitations on the extent of profit one may gain by food trade, or consideration of its impact on food security, trade can pose a serious threat to food security of a community.
It is not so long ago that the so-called Great Grain Robbery took place, and paradoxically enough, it was not committed by 'capitalist culprits'. Now, the necessary conditions for food security are its sufficient production and general availability. For the sake of simplicity, I shall not include another important factor, viz., its affordability at this point.
With respect to the effects of trade on food security, sufficient food production cannot be sustained if the producers are not sufficiently rewarded for their important role in society. However, when one looks at the retail food prices and what the producers get, and what the intermediaries earn by storage, packaging, transport and selling, one can easily see that both food producers and the consumers are at a considerable disadvantage. So, food trade as it is practised today does not seem to promote food security.
Moreover, speculation in food stuffs as practised in 'future markets' is based on buying as cheap as possible, keeping them in storage until demand rises, and sell it at the highest possible price. By any standard of justice, higher production should entitle the food producer to reap benefit of his work, but here, it is the opposite. What is even worse for food security, consumers will have to pay more for what was bought very cheap. High retail prices are obviously a threat to food security.
I think food producers should be encouraged to form moderate sized cooperatives to handle their produce, so that everybody involved in food trade from the producers to the consumers will have fair play. This will encourage many more people to take up agriculture as a profession, rather than shunning it as many do now.
I would also like to mention how well-meant but ill-adviced economic advice to promote trade could reduce food security. The well-known case is that of Senegal and the Cameroons during the 1980'ies.
During the pre-advice era, peanuts were one of the main sources of protein in people's diet in those countries. It was extensively cultivated, cheap, and widely available. The people enjoyed a reasonable food security, and then the two governments entered into trade. Peanuts were changed from being a food crop into a cash crop. They were gathered and exported, mainly to France for industrial processing.
A few years later, most children in those coutries were malnurished, and the same applied to the adults. Foreign currency from peanut exports did not go into sustain food security, and one important component of the people's diet became scarce and dear. This is a classic example of food trade undermining food security.
I think as civilised people, it is time for us to appreciate that it is not permissible to regard food as a mere article of trade open to every kind of speculation and sharp practice. Food represents the possibility of continued life. Hence, it is high time that the international community with its pretensions to civilisation, draws up an enforceable code conduct for trade involving food, and moreover, empower the producers and consumers so that they can get more involved in the food distribution chain to their mutual benefit.