Food Security: A Global Issue

Story by Kuei-Feng Tung |

Here in Boston, food is readily available where many combinations of price range, convenience, and cuisine exist to suit the consumer’s needs. It’s often more difficult to decide what to eat than it is to find a place to eat. Perhaps one third of the world’s population engaging in agriculture has got something to do with it. However, at the same time, the latest State of Commodities Report indicates some levels of chronic undernourishment in most countries worldwide, meaning that people periodically don’t consume enough nutritional value to cover their annual needs. Of the one third engaged in agriculture, 70% of the world’s poor work the lands. It’s ironic that many of the people growing food are the ones prone to hunger. How can this duality of abundance and scarcity simultaneously exist?

Food security researcher Jennifer Clapp discussed her findings and the academic dialogue on our current food system at Northeastern University’s guest speaker series on February 23rd. According to Clapp, food security originated as a military concern. It was a high priority threat to the state if people couldn’t be fed and we can see evidence of the United States’ agricultural industry’s exceptional treatment to both our tax code and our foreign trade policy. Agriculture is in a separate tax code from other business industries allowing for more government subsidies just for that industry, and up until 1947, the United States had upheld protectionist trade policies to shelter domestic productions of food from the whims of the global market when other countries else were advised to lower tariffs and other barriers to trade. Eventually, the concept of food security evolved beyond self sufficiency and food was weaponized into diplomatic bargaining chips; e.g. threatening to stop shipments of staple foods to control states dependent on these imports.

There are currently two highly polarized narratives on trade and food security – both championed by powerful international institutions:

On one hand, the World Trade Organization (WTO) adamantly encourages globalization, more transnational trade relations, and less tariffs or other ‘barriers’ that inhibit trade deals. The WTO’s narrative, rooted in David Recardo’s theory of Comparative Advantage, claims that each country is predisposed to growing certain produce due to their conditions (geography, etc). As such, many WTO experts argue that an interdependent and connected world system of countries utilizing their resources  to develop and produce what they’re most suited to grow and trading with each other is inherently more efficient, trade is now a moral imperative because many countries require these “transmission belts” of goods and services to generate income and access products they’re not suited to grow themselves, and that protectionism is a peril to stability. Clapp used Cambodia as a case study to illustrate the WTO’s structural adjustment recommendations. Because of Cambodia’s monsoon seasons and access to flatlands, they were encouraged to focus most of their agricultural sector on growing rice. Today, Cambodia and 4 other countries supply 85% of the world’s demand for rice.

On the other hand, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) argues that food serves many roles besides trading commodities and recommends countries diversify their crop yield to ensure self-sufficiency, buffer their vulnerability to the world market’s price volatility (in a similar way to hedging bets and risks by diversifying a stock market portfolio), and protect their autonomy and sovereignty. Countries are more stable socially and farmers are protected against loss of land rights and fluctuating prices compared to those countries that depend on one or two cash crops. Unlike trading stocks, in the event of devaluation, ‘cutting your losses’ and changing produce to something else more profitable is often not an option. Considering that plants may need years to mature to the point they start producing actual valuable fruits, berries, nuts, etc, the transition phase between crops is long and a farmer from that 70% would be without income possibly for years until the new crops mature with no insurance until then.

At the same time, neither narrative is perfect. The Comparative advantage theory only plausible within the confines of its assumptions, and these assumptions do not reflect reality. For example, the basis that commodities are the only things that move between borders is outrageous because labor and cash can flow from one country to another. Equally, the diversity narrative may not be a viable option anymore since as many as 66 states (⅓ of all countries) are beyond able to reverse their interdependency on other countries for their access to food.

Because there are problems and merits with both narratives, deadlocks often happen at the institutional level; “WTO rules matters for food security, but it’s not a food security organization.”, said Clapp, and at the same time, FAO considers there be no place for discussions of free trade in their forums. Consequently, the two major institutions making structural recommendations for food security do not communicate with each other.
What that indicates to Clapp is that perhaps the binary yes/no nature of the question being asked by scholars in the food systems field needs change. Instead of “Is trade is beneficial for food security?”, the question “under what situations can trade be beneficial for food security?” might better answer our questions of food systems, abundance, and scarcity.