The Role of Trade
A yet unaddressed facet of this debate concerns the role of international trade and trade policy in promoting or preventing obesity and overweight.
Trade contributes to food security where it increases food availability. Trade liberalisation can stimulate hitherto protected local production, increase its efficiency and resilience along the food value chain, and thereby mitigate local food insecurity. In theory, even poor consumers can then better choose the diet which is best for them.
Safe but unhealthy food, whether locally produced or imported, cannot be prohibited. But eating today is not only a matter of free, informed choice. Obesity and overweight are related to trade rules in goods, services, and intellectual property. In a world of trade liberalisation and growing interdependence this interaction must be continuously reviewed.
Better and more food production is an issue here. Productivity increases along the global food chain, and global branding and partly government-sponsored market promotion also increase trade in expensive but not necessarily healthier foods. Agricultural policy space, little constrained by trade and investment agreements, allows countries to at least partly protect their farmers from foreign competitors and to enjoy bumper harvests without producer prices crashing or health problems increasing. With the help of farm subsidies and risk insurance support powerful operators from rich and from some emerging economies are now able to compete, despite higher production and transport costs, even on remote markets. They can simply offload their low-end products and food surpluses – and their obesity problems – on the world market, at virtually zero cost.
Unfettered free trade can thus increase inequalities of income and of access to healthy diets. Without accompanying measures trade may actually increase obesity and overweight.
Health considerations should therefore play a bigger role in trade policy formulation. Many measures proposed by international health experts on obesity and diets show a more or less strong correlation between the relevant trade rules and the presently available evidence on effectiveness. This is a matter of maximising benefits and minimising risks. For instance, tariff reductions for health-promoting products, or binding market access commitments for health services should thus be reviewed jointly between trade and health agencies, including their timing. On the other side, health authorities should look at the relevant trade rules when they assess the merits of a fat tax or of consumer information with a “traffic light label” showing the weight impact of certain foods. Governments should also aim at a better use of health-supporting goods and health services. This would improve efficiency of scarce resources. Finally, trade and investment rules can also enhance and facilitate a number of non-discriminatory health measures and private operator actions.
The lack of coordination both at the international and the national levels appear as a serious although surmountable problem. Several examples of trade frictions show that the lack of legally binding health and dietary standards impairs national implementation measures and makes them vulnerable to legal challenges in WTO litigation, not to mention parochial interests of junk food exporters and of inefficient local producers of unhealthy foodstuffs. This means that intergovernmental health, trade and financial agencies must improve their own governance and mutual support with the help of their member governments and of private operators – and by listening to advice from concerned citizens and from the scholarship.
From an obesity and overweight mitigation perspective most important and urgent, therefore, are better cooperation, standard-setting, and synchronisation between all concerned stakeholders, both at the national and international levels, especially in a process accompanying a rapidly progressing globalisation and trade liberalisation.
Ad Q 1) What are the main issues for policy-makers to consider when linking climate change on the one hand and food security and nutrition on the other?
Even/because this is a fiendishly complex issue, focus is essential. I suggest a focus on the weakest link in the food value chain i.e. smallholders in net-food importing developing countries (NFIDC). This requires a self-critical look into the reasons for the failure (i) of smallholders to even feed themselves (ii) of national and international institutions including FAO, IBRD and WTO to lift the inherent smallholder biases in their own policies and practices. The fact that many scholars and even the research arm of the World Bank itself had already identified such biases back in the 1990ies, but never acted on them, speaks long for what is basically a governance failure in many organisations and countries. Regardless of whether we consider climate change as fundamentally different challenge or as an additional factor of uncertainty impacting on global and national food security, it seems to me that without an answer and remedial action in this issue there is little chance for successful climate change mitigation especially in those countries and population groups likely to be affected most violently. Failing now would leave those smallholders with few mitigation options other than massive national and international migration.
Ekaterina, thanks for your summing up. I am not much for triplicas but Max Blanck asked me to feel free to react. (Btw, your reference to the Salvatici study is welcome. My favourite of a bridging attempt remains Jennifer Clapp even where I do not agree with her.
You are right: even scientists, let alone stakeholders, have "often contradictory" views. But when you call for a "holistic food value chain approach" is this not a diplomatic term avoiding competition of ideas and among food suppliers? Pascal Lamy and Olivier de Schutter cannot be both right! (I have argued elsewhere that they are both wrong.)
On the trade liberalisation vs food security debate, my view is still that the former is a blunt instrument able to both free AND kill farmers. By this I mean that neither towing the free trade line OR calling for food sovereignty ensures more food security. My last word, in CNN speak, would be that when the chips are down, safeguards are better than tariffs. And, in WTO speak, Green is better than Amber - but it will be a long time before this sinks in with policy space defenders, and Doha Round negotiators, everywhere!
Farmer Security is not Food Security!
Food Security and Trade? A complex subject, agreed. Sadly, this debate shows that most opinions are already made. But the good news, from an academic vantage point, is that while the spectrum of opinions still varies widely, the subject is by now well-researched. A still increasing number of publications address the political, economic and regulatory dimensions at the national and the international levels of the Right to Food and of agricultural production and trade. Unlike, for instance, food security vs (foreign) investment (including, respectively, home and host state responsibilities. Somewhat surprisingly, another under-researched topic is the food security dimension of agricultural production and of border protection policies. Both free traders and “food sovereignty” advocates are quick in their (opposite) assessment of the impact of trade liberalisation on food security. Both, however, seem to overlook the fact that these policies in every country rely on domestic farm promotion and protection tools. Never mind consumer security. Or the collateral damage which such policies might have on efficient farmers in other countries – arguably even those public goods support policies notified under the WTO Green Box with little or no distortions on trade and production. My other regret is that FAO and other intergovernmental organisations have defined food secuerity but are unable to agree on Best Farming Practices to reach that goal.
Farmer security agreed to by taxpayers and domestic consumers is fine as long as it does not come at the expense of other countries – but it does not guarantee global food security and feed a world population of 10 billion people, including those who only earn a few dollars a day.
Sorry for being rude. But as we all know food security is not achievable without trade and (in many cases foreign) direct investment, and appropriate rules thereon. The fact alone that today we have a big gap in this field is enough reason for concern, and work. But the fact that the whole Draft circulated here does not even once mention trade and FDI should ring an alarm bell to the whole food security community.
Please keep working - or grow enough cucumbers in your own backyards for ensuring food sovereignty!