Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Food: Trading away our future - part II

The increase in trade has big environmental repercussions as well as a big social and cultural impact. The increasing distance makes it easier for market actors to externalize costs and more difficult to citizens and the political system to influence the way things are produced. Trade is not only a response to market demand, it creates demand and therefore recreates the need for it; trade becomes its own justification.

In a previous post I demonstrated the rapid growth of international trade in food and agriculture commodities. Global food production increased with over 50% between 1986 and 2009. Meanwhile the trade in food for direct human consumption has increased from 15% of total production in 1986 to 23% in 2009, thus about one fourth of food production is traded.

This globalization of food commodities has led to, or enabled, an increasing disconnection between human populations and the land and water resources that support them through crop and livestock production. The graph of global agricultural trade below from Graham K. Macdonald et al 2015 (reproduced with permission), says more than thousand words. [1]
Click to view

Trade has improved food access, but primarily for those that are rich. In 1965 insufficient domestic production meant insufficient food supply, but in recent years the deficit has been increasingly compensated by rising food imports.[2] Of course, you have to afford food in order to buy it in international markets; the average per cap GDP in countries that achieve sufficient food supply by imports was approximately tenfold compared to countries with insufficient food supply and production.[3]

But isn’t it more efficient that countries with good conditions produce food for those with less good conditions?

Perhaps, but this is really not driving trade. For example, Sweden has good conditions for arable farming and even better for livestock production. Despite this it imports almost 50% of its beef and a lot of other agriculture products it could grow. Meanwhile Sweden has let more than 1 million hectare of arable land and even larger areas of pasture revert to forest or lie idle. The reason that beef is imported is simply that it is cheaper to produce somewhere else.

As I showed in my previous post trade can very well go from places with scarcity of resources to places where these are abundant, as other economic factors (or government support programs or tariffs) will determine where production will be most competitive. The water use efficiency of food trade (i.e., food calories produced per unit volume of water used) has declined in the last few decades.[4]

The global food trade has also affected agricultural landscapes, fully in line with trade theory. Competition drives farmers in to more and more specialization and larger scale in order to cut costs. This first leads to that farms go into monocropping and, ultimately, economies of scale will make whole landscapes devoted to one or a few lines of production/commodities. The implication on bio-diversity is huge and ironically some of these bread baskets are increasingly becoming food deserts. 
Trade puts pressure towards harmonization of standards which has a number of non-desirable effects.
First, the development of international (harmonized) standards is dominated by the richer countries and as they are the main markets, exporters and exporting countries tend to go along with the standards demanded by main markets. This puts producers in exporting countries in a disadvantage as their needs are mostly not listened to. Other stakeholders in exporting countries, such as consumers or farm workers have even less say in the development of these standards.

Second, while some environmental problems are global (global warming), most are local or regional in scope. For example, in some countries, limiting erosion or water use in agriculture may be a primary objective, in others eutrophication or pesticide contamination of waterways might be central and in a third country with intensive agriculture the loss of bio-diversity in the agriculture landscape. It is highly unlikely that international standards can encapsulate all this. It is equally unlikely that the various social and cultural situations will be well reflected in international standards.

Third, there is a tendency for international standards to move towards lower standards. For example, the EU farm lobby in Copa & Cogeca requests that the license for glyphosate as a pesticide shall be renewed as a ban would “put us at an unfair  competitive disadvantage vis a vis non-EU countries who export to the EU.” Similar arguments can be heard in almost all countries. 

Trade can allow population densities larger than those that would prevail if these regions would have to rely solely on domestic supply. But the increasing distance between consumers and producers comes with a lot of problems. As Jeniffer Clapp[5] outlines in Distant agricultural landscapes,  ”…distance enables certain powerful actors to externalize ecological and social costs, which in turn makes it difficult to link specific global actors to particular biophysical and social impacts felt on local agricultural landscapes. Feedback mechanisms that normally would provide pressure for improved agricultural sustainability are weak because there is a lack of clarity regarding responsibility for outcomes.” Consumers are mostly unaware of the ecological and social consequences of their consumption choices and even if they wanted to it makes it hard for them to influence.

There is a similar effect on the political level. When the costs associated with a products are externalized onto other actors and landscapes that may be half way around the world, the politics of addressing those problems is fraught with challenges and governments in the country where the products are consumed have no jurisdiction in the places where it is produced. This is one of the drivers behind the efforts to use “the market” and “consumer choice” to favour sustainable production. But the ability of “consumer choice” to have a real influence on the production in distant places is very limited (I elaborate my arguments around this in the post Ethics for sale? and even more in my book Global Eating Disorder).

Trade can and is more often a means to sustain affluent lifestyles of wealthy nations, while reducing negative environmental impacts of crop production on their own territories, allowing them to shift burdens elsewhere.[6] Meanwhile, trade often perverts the consumption of the resource-poor. In the article Taking Political Ecology Global antropologist Richard Wilk shares his observations from the Kekchi in Belize: ”I watched mothers selling the eggs from their family’s chickens, to spend the money on Coca-Cola and candy, while their children clearly needed protein more than sugar. I saw men selling their pigs to get money for a boom box, or a carton of cigarettes, when they could have been sending their kids to school, or building a latrine, or improving their corn storage, or planting some cocoa.”[7]
Trade is not only a response to market demand, it creates demand and therefore recreates the need for it; trade becomes its own justification. The argument goes along these lines:
“Development makes people happy. Trade is good for development. We need free trade in order to promote more trade. Thus, free trade makes more people happy”

This post will be followed by two more on the trade theme, please stay tuned.

[1] Graham K. Macdonald et al 2015, Rethinking Agricultural Trade Relationships in an Era of Globalization http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org
[2] Porkka M, Kummu M, Siebert S, Varis O (2013) From Food Insufficiency towards Trade Dependency: A Historical Analysis of Global Food Availability. PLoS ONE 8(12): e82714. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082714
[3] Porkka M, Kummu M, Siebert S, Varis O (2013) From Food Insufficiency towards Trade Dependency: A Historical Analysis of Global Food Availability. PLoS ONE 8(12): e82714. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082714
[4]  D’Odorico, P., J. A. Carr, F. Laio, L. Ridolfi, and S. Vandoni (2014), Feeding humanity through global food trade, Earth’s Future, 2, 458–469, doi:10.1002/2014EF000250.
[5] Clapp, J. Distant Agricultural Landscapes, Sustain Sci (2015) 10:305-316
[6] Thomas Kastner, Karl-Heinz Erb nd Helmut Haberl 2014 Rapid growth in agricultural trade: effects on global area efficiency and the role of management, Environ. Res. Lett. 9 (2014) 034015 (10pp)
[7] Wilk, R. 1998, Taking Political Ecology Global, Indiana University.

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