Skip to main content

Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

Does Free Food Trade Enhance Global Food Security?

According to Mr. Christian Häberli, the answer to our question seems to be resounding “yes!” We quote below the relevant part of his contribution to the present discussion:

“Other news is less good, under a global welfare enhancement free-trader philosophy – and in a poor and mainly importing

 Developing country perspective. “Go local” is not only a necessity, or a simple “confined consumer” preference; it now comes under the ominous name of “shortening supply chains” and is actively promoted by governments wanting to add local value, at the expense of their consumers and of more efficient producers abroad. This rings a bell for those having to reckon with, for example, “America first” or “strategic sovereignty for facemasks” politicians. For staple food, and regardless of their WTO-compatibility or impact on foreign suppliers, such trade and investment measures may well increase what some other idealists call “food sovereignty” but which, in more sober terms, might well end the vital contribution of trade to global food security.”

We note with some disquiet two terms he has used here, “ominous” and “vital contribution.” There are two points we need to clarify before we can ascertain whether Mr. Häberli’s claims are justified. We shall now take them up in turn.

First, what do we mean by global food security? Obviously, it is the presence in the real world certain state of affairs pertaining to food. When it obtains, people in the world are enjoying a sustainable supply of wholesome food they require for a varied and balanced diet at “an affordable price”in accordance with their own food culture.

As we have said time after time, all human cultures have developed their own food culture in accordance with the climatic, geographic and soil conditions of where they live. Furthermore, even animals display food preferences; for instance, camels in South Central Arabia used to display a distinct preference to thorn bushes rather than gorging themselves on more nutritious Lucerne.

Most humans derive pleasure and enjoyment from their food, and meal times are often social occasions. Of course, there are aberrations like drunkenness and ‘working lunches’, but these are in a disagreeable minority. Many cultures are proud of their culinary traditions, and food culture includes the most suitable crops and animals to a given area.

Food culture and culinary enjoyment are an integral part of the culture of a people; hence, it is a part of their cultural patrimony and nobody has any right to traduce it for spurious reasons motivated by personal gain.

Secondly, throughout the world, vast majority of the people need to buy their food; this requires them to have a sufficient income for the purpose. If they do not, “free trade in food” may make the food “accessible” to them in shops in large enough quantities, but food in the shop and no money in the pocket will hardly contribute to food security.

In most poor countries and in the poor areas of those countries where some social groups are affluent and others not, the following conditions obtain:

  •  A significant percentage of those poor are engaged in agricultural pursuits. Cheap food imports would deprive them of their already meagre livelihood.
  • High unemployment is common among the poor social groups.
  •  Their education and acquired skill levels are low.
  •  Under these circumstances, “free trade in food” will only benefit the affluent social groups provided that such trade does not contravene the country’s food culture.
  • Hence, “free trade in food” makes no contribution whatsoever to the food security of the poor unemployed or those engaged in agricultural pursuits.
  • As it will be shown below, it will indeed make them even less secure with respect to food while the affluent seem to display a higher incidence of obesity among them precisely due to “free food trade” in highly processed factory foods either as direct imports, or using monoculture in a host country to manufacture such.
  • “Free food trade” permits the establishment, operation and sales of factory foods in poor countries by the multi-national firms. They resort to monoculture and capital-intensive food production in order to ‘maximise’ their profits. This will deprive poor farm workers employment opportunities because the capital-intensive methods depend greatly on mechanisation and on very little human labour. Moreover, such farm workers are not adept at using the equipment used in the kinds of factory farms now operating in poor countries. Personnel employed there come exclusively from cities.
  • Therefore, it is clear that “free trade in food” will have the most deleterious effect on the already precarious food security among the millions of the poor distributed throughout the world.
  • As the sustenance farmers in poor countries or in the rural areas of the affluent ones are squeezed out of their livelihood by the “free food trade” it would increase the people’s migration into cities adding to the social problems it entails., If one is willing not to depend on impressive documented ‘facts’ and visit the slums circling “economic miracles cities” where millions survive, one will clearly understand that they can never earn enough to experience any food security.
  •  And such cities are in countries where “free food trade” is rife.
  • Furthermore, spread of monoculture consequent to “free food trade” has significantly contributed to global climate change due to deforestation it entails, soil salination owing to imprudent use of fertilisers, extinction of pollinators and other beneficial animals due to extensive use of biocides, etc. Even though it was ignored, it was noted long ago when Amazons forest was cut down to ‘create’ grazing land for cattle for US ‘Hamburger’ market.
  • The local food culture of a place has risen through trial and error for a long period. True, some such traditions are harmful, but a majority of them involve animals and plants best suited to a locale and have least deleterious effects on our environment. “Free food trade” poses an unacceptable threat to this good practise.

Thus, “free food trade” as it is practised today does not contribute to an enhanced food security to the already deprived, nor does it contribute to public health with respect to rising NCD’s. Moreover, it contributes to the already serious environmental degradation.  Hence, “free food trade” as it is practised today is to be deprecated, and opposition to it encouraged.

Best wishes!

Lal Manavado.