Meeting future global food security requirements is not just about quantity; it is also about meeting growing needs in a way that safeguards human as well as planetary health. But national priorities and policies often remain out of sync with aspirations for more sustainable and healthy food systems.
International trade and trade policies play an ambiguous role in the current food system. With 80 per cent of the world’s population depending on imports to meet at least part of their food and nutritional requirements, trade has a unique function in offsetting imbalances between supply and demand. However, in the absence of effective regulatory frameworks or pricing frameworks that internalize environmental, social or health costs, trade can exacerbate and globalize challenges associated with food production and land use trends such as deforestation, land degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and the shift to unhealthy diets.
Over the last two decades, trade in agricultural products (excluding intra-EU flows) has more than tripled in value, to reach $1.33 trillion. The geography of global food trade flows has also shifted, primarily towards South–South trade, which now accounts for roughly a quarter of total agricultural trade flows. The nature of global trade has changed drastically, with traditional exports such as wheat and coffee growing slowly at around 2 per cent per year, while products such as palm oil, fruit juice, soft drinks and other processed products have grown at 8 per cent or more annually.
This overall increase in trade in agricultural products raises questions about the growing utilization of resources, such as water or soil nutrients, that are embedded in those products through production and processing. Trade itself also causes negative environmental impacts, starting with greenhouse gas emissions associated with transport and storage. If the environmental cost associated with production and trade is not reflected in the final price of goods, trade may accelerate the depletion of resources or their unsustainable use.
It is critical to ensure that trade policy options pursued by producing and consuming countries alike will support a transition to more sustainable and healthier food and land use systems. The first step in addressing trade-related food systems challenges must involve rebuilding trust among policy actors. There is a need for new spaces for informal dialogue among actors, and ‘soft’ governance mechanisms that can help rebuild consensus on the best ways forward. Meeting these challenges also requires an appreciation of the complex interactions between sectoral policies (e.g. on water, land, food, etc.) and their multiple interfaces with trade policies.
Conditioning the use of subsidies on their sustainability and/or health impacts encourages the delivery of essential public goods in ways that are consistent with sustainability and health goals. A first step therefore is the removal of perverse incentives (e.g. subsidies encouraging the overuse of fertilizers or pesticides or the overproduction of certain commodities, as well as certain biofuels subsidies) and replacing them with market-correcting subsidies.
Trade facilitation measures for fruits and vegetables that are aimed at easing transit at the border, by cutting unnecessary bureaucracy and reducing waiting times, can improve their availability, reduce costs and improve food quality and safety for consumers. Similarly, measures aimed at improving sustainable cold storage and upgrading value chains can support better diets and consumption by increasing the availability of fresh produce on markets, especially in developing countries.
A global food stamps programme developed through the G20 and facilitated by the UN’s food agencies could address purchasing power imbalances and tackle malnutrition in developing countries. If carefully designed, such ‘safety net’ schemes can not only contribute to improving calorific intakes but also help deliver more balanced and healthier diets. Careful attention must be given to how such a scheme would work in practice, building on experience to date with similar initiatives.
Integrating the notion of sustainable food and inputs trade in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework can help to deliver more sustainable and healthier food and land use systems. This could be achieved by likeminded countries introducing a set of goals or targets aimed at mitigating the role of trade in placing indirect pressure on biodiversity, and to encourage trade in biodiversity-based products including natural ingredients produced ethically and following sustainability principles and criteria.
An SDG-oriented agenda for agricultural trade is needed. It could be formed by countries seeking to remove perverse incentives, guaranteeing a safe harbour for market-correcting measures, clarifying existing rules and establishing plurilateral negotiations among subsets of the WTO membership, or sectoral approaches, to address specific challenges.
Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from trade need to be addressed. Governments could seek to achieve this through ensuring the carbon neutrality of existing and new trade deals, either by connecting carbon markets among contracting parties or by developing joint initiatives to tax international maritime and air transport emissions.