Geneva Trade Week Session: Ensuring Food Security, Sustainably: What role for trade?

September 29, 2020 3:00 pm - October 29, 2020 4:30 pm CEST

(Open to public)

How can trade—and trade policy—contribute to food security and environmental sustainability? The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) joined forces with the  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) to explore this question at a virtual session during Geneva Trade Week on September 29, moderated by FAO economist Ahmad Mukhtar.

ZHAW’s Professor Martina Bozzola laid the groundwork for the discussion, looking at definitions of sustainability and food security, and reminding participants of the three interconnected components of sustainable development—economic, social, and environmental.

“You really need to embrace all the three pillars,” Bozzola said.

Trade: Not an end in itself

Jonathan Hepburn from IISD then explored how food security and sustainability relate to trade policy in today’s world, and what governments can do differently to make progress in the future.

“Trade is a means of implementation—it’s not an end in itself,” he said.

Hepburn said that, alongside domestic productivity improvements, trade was set to become increasingly important in meeting future demand for food across the developing world. But he also cautioned that markets for food and agriculture remain poorly functioning and highly distorted.

Furthermore, the persistence of poverty means that many people remain unable to afford to access the food and nutrition they need even when food is otherwise available in the market.

Sustainable Agriculture in Action

Federica Angelucci, from the International Trade Centre (ITC), told participants how the ITC’s “Alliance for Action” was contributing to more sustainable agricultural value chains in practice. She also outlined what actions governments could take to support them.

She gave the example of the Sankofa cocoa project in Ghana, where the number of farmers adopting sustainable farming practice has quadrupled under the program.

“Policy-makers should also look at the barriers, especially non-tariff barriers, that are still affecting regional markets,” Angelucci said.

A “Key Role” for the World Trade Organization

Jamaica’s Ambassador Cheryl Spencer told participants that the World Trade Organization (WTO) had “a key role” to play in addressing these questions.

She highlighted how subsidies that distort patterns of trade and production continue to threaten producer livelihoods in the developing world and undermine food security. She also argued that global trade rules should ensure governments maintain the flexibility to provide other types of support to the sector.

“Trade distorting subsidies are, of course, the biggest danger to agricultural production and trade,” she said.

The COVID-19 crisis had seen some governments adopt large stimulus packages, she said, but warned that these could lead to unfair competition for farmers in low-income countries.

Ambassador Spencer emphasized that, although the pandemic has prompted governments to impose restrictions, countries should do their best to keep food flowing to where it’s needed.

“WTO members have a duty to keep supply chains open to facilitate movement of agricultural products, inputs, and workers across borders in order to prevent food shortages,” she said.

Restricting Food Exports

During the discussion, one participant asked what the panellists thought of moves to exempt humanitarian food aid from export restrictions when it is purchased by the World Food Program (WFP) for non-commercial purposes. Trade negotiators are currently discussing this question at the WTO.

“We believe this is one of those ‘low-hanging fruit’ for MC12,” Ambassador Spencer said, in reference to the trade body’s upcoming 12th ministerial conference.

Hepburn concurred, reminding participants that major economies in the G20 had already agreed to do so in a declaration earlier this year, as well as in another they issued in 2011.

“At the end of the day, we need to be able to bring the results of those declarations back to the WTO and turn them into something that’s actionable,” he said.

Event moderator Mukhtar underscored that WFP food aid “is targeted to people in extreme humanitarian need”: unlike other consumers, they may therefore have no choice in how they access adequate food and nutrition.

Climate Change and Future Shocks

“COVID is in the front of our minds—but we know that climate change is going to mean there’ll be a lot more extreme weather events in the years ahead,” Hepburn warned.

He said that WTO members needed to start thinking differently about risks and food system shocks, so as to ensure that countries have the tools they needed to respond to unexpected events, but without exporting shocks and volatility onto other markets in ways that could harm vulnerable producers and consumers.

Ambassador Spencer agreed. “The WTO has a role to play in cushioning shocks and guaranteeing food security,” she said.

Summing up the exchange, Mukhtar told participants that trade and trade policy “look very different” if seen from a developmental, rather than a transactional, perspective.

“It’s up to us,” he said: “How do we use trade to achieve food security or to achieve sustainability?”

See the recording of the panel session below