The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Feed the world: Can trade liberalisation help to achieve global food security?

Photo by Jason Taellious
Free trade’s expansion into the realm of food and agriculture has given residents of the Global North access to a greater range of food at lower costs than ever before. As with most commodities since free trade was implemented globally during the 1980s and 1990s, food has been globalised. However since the 2008 global financial crisis critiques of this prevailing economic system have become more prominent. The wisdom of free trade economics is being questioned at an unprecedented level, with many seeing it as increasingly evident that the people of the Global South are being exploited for the benefit of those in rich nations. With the financial crisis came a food price crisis, which led to the number of people not receiving adequate nutrition reaching a level not seen in decades, with one in seven people going hungry worldwide.

Paradoxically, more food is being produced than ever, and the burden of hunger is tragically placed in developing countries. In this guest post, Angus Macleod analyses whether this crisis, and general malnourishment in the developing world, can be considered a result of the trade liberalisation policies which dominate global economics, and if so, how viable food sovereignty, the main alternative to this system, can be.

Feeding the world

Since the 1980s, neoliberalism and the principle of comparative advantage have largely guided global trade and the policies of global economic institutions and policy making bodies such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO). It has commonly been accepted that the extension of free trade, through the reduction of supposed barriers to trade such as import quotas and tariff barriers, will lead to an efficient flow of goods the world over. Countries can produce, and then consume and export the commodities or foodstuffs which they produce most efficiently, importing whatever which they produce less efficiently, from countries who specialise in those goods.

Photo by Global Justice Now

However this global “consensus” is being brought into question. The theory that food security is best provided through a smooth functioning market has been severely damaged by the reality of economic meltdown and a food price crisis. Rather than provide food security for all, critics of free trade argue that the removal of trade barriers merely opens up the food producers of the Global South to competition from large northern producers. This, they argue, leads to the destruction of domestic food industries due to their inability to compete with these northern producers. In turn, a reliance on northern food is fostered which, in the event of an economic downturn, has disastrous consequences for food security in the Global South who have had their capacity to produce their own food destroyed.

Trade liberalisation in the Philippines

At first glance, a study of Filipino food security trends since the introduction of trade liberalisation appears to show that free trade has been a notable success. One of the guinea pigs of structural adjustment in the 1980s, the Philippines has witnessed a decline in the number of undernourished people running concurrently with the implementation of trade liberalisation. The number of undernourished people declined sharply with the Ramos administration reducing tariffs and committing to free trade through the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) to an all-time low of 12 million from 2008 to 2010. It would appear that the opening up of the Filipino economy to foodstuffs from other nations has, as the neoliberal logic predicts, allowed them to focus their economy on producing the goods which can enable their economy to grow, while using the profits to import food from more efficient producers.

Photo by Global Justice Now

However these statistics, while encouraging, do not tell the whole story. The reliance the Philippines now has on the global market, shown clearly by the transformation of the nation from a net food exporter to the largest importer of rice in the world, is all well and good in times of prosperity, but is unreliable. When global food prices began to rise in 2007 the government attempted to buy 500,000 tonnes of rice on the open market, and when no supplier responded, they tried to buy 650,000 tonnes one month later, sending prices to over $900 a ton. This perhaps contributed to a subsequent rise in the numbers of those undernourished after decades of decline; from 12.7 million between 2010 and 2012, to 13.7 million between 2014 and 2016. The situation in the Philippines is not a dire one, but when it is considered that its more interventionist anti-trade liberalisation neighbours, China and Vietnam, have higher levels of food security, with only 9.3 per cent and 11 per cent of their respective populations undernourished, compared with 13.7 per cent in the Philippines, the assertion that food security is best provided through the free market is shown to be lacking in substance.

Along with the risks that exposure to the conditions of the global market has for food security, it also impacts on the livelihoods of millions of agricultural workers. The way Global North producers have undercut Filipino agricultural workers has led to the destruction of their livelihood, and a subsequent de-peasantisation of the nation. The shrinking agriculture sector has caused a fall in household income share from 80 per cent of national income in 1982, to 66.9 per cent in 1999, while corporate income share has risen. From this, 19 per cent of the population now live beneath the national poverty line of $1.25 per day. The relative food security of the Philippines means liberalisation cannot be considered a disaster, but a closer look at its consequences means it would be difficult to describe it as a success.

Trade liberalisation in Sub Saharan Africa

An analysis of Sub Saharan Africa tells a more tragic tale. Just as in the Philippines, trade liberalisation has led to a vulnerability caused by an over-reliance on the global market, and has destroyed the livelihoods of many who relied upon an agrarian way of life. However here it has had far more severe consequences.

Photo by Global Justice Now

Perhaps no country is better able to demonstrate this tragedy than Kenya. In the 1950s and 1960s, state run subsidy programmes and tariffs to keep out cheap foreign grain meant maize yields increased at a higher rate than in the United States. A subsequent liberalisation of the Kenyan economy with the removal of these tariffs changed things, with Kenyan land devoted almost entirely to the high value horticulture sector. Forty per cent of Kenyan children work on plantations which export pineapple, coffee, tea and sugar to European markets, while anywhere from four million to eight million Kenyans face starvation every year. This truly perverse statistic is a result of the huge instability caused by this system. If these high value goods were to be rejected by buyers from the Global North, then Kenya would not have the income to purchase the food to feed its population, a population which could previously feed itself.

This is a damning indictment of trade liberalisation, for not only does it appear that liberalisation and the dominance of the free market has not brought food security, but it has had an adverse effect, not just in Kenya but across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Food sovereignty – An alternative

Clearly policies of trade liberalisation, while theoretically sound, leave much to be desired. We are not without alternatives, though, and attempts at creating food sovereignty in certain parts of the developing world have been found to have more success in feeding people. Food sovereignty is a movement which prioritises smallholder farming over industrial methods, and pledges to resist the global corporate industrialised food system and protect these farmers while enabling them to produce ecologically sustainable foodstuffs. While it has widely been assumed that smallholder farming has inferior productive potential when compared to industrial methods, this is not the case. Smaller farmers only use 30 per cent of the world’s resources, yet some estimate that they provide 70 per cent of its food. Food sovereignty is not a widely used way of organising food production, but where it has been used, in some areas of South Africa which have been left behind by industrialisation like in the Ivory Park or the Tsakane townships, communities have taken control of their food supply, and many have been able to make a living while feeding their communities.

Photo by Global Justice Now

Of course we should not turn entirely away from cross-border trade, which gives nations the potential to pass on their technological advances to help other countries across the world. However a system which protects domestic agriculture industries, while empowering those who work in them, particularly smallholders, has the potential to feed the world, far more so than policies of trade liberalisation.

Angus Macleod has successfully completed his BA in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham in July 2017. His dissertation on Feed the world: Can trade liberalisation help to achieve global food security received a first class mark.

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