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To nourish millions, we need global food trade

Local food production is championed for its low environmental impact. But a new study shows that if we abandoned global trade, food insecurity would intensify, leaving hundreds of millions undernourished around the world.
January 26, 2018

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A new research paper reveals that without a global food trade, several hundred million people in multiple countries would be undernourished. This poses a conundrum: while there are environmental drawbacks to global trade, without it our world would be increasingly food insecure, the Nature Sustainability study finds.

A priority of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to eradicate hunger, malnutrition, and undernutrition in coming decades. A long-held assumption is that we can achieve that by producing more food. However, the new research posits that food security may actually be less a question of how much food there is, and more to do with how accessible it is.

To find out how international trade flows shape access to food across the planet, the study researchers merged several datasets to create a global food map. That incorporated the food that countries produce, the nutrient profiles of those products, and how much of it gets wasted, or converted into animal feed on a global scale. This also helped them model what would happen under a hypothetical, no-trade scenario.

After subtracting the losses caused by food waste and conversion of crops for other uses (like animal feed), they found that worldwide nutrient production far outstrips the global population’s needs–if food is fairly distributed across the planet. For instance, the world produces enough Vitamin B12 to feed an added 16.79 billion people. There’s also enough protein to feed another 11 million people, sufficient Vitamin A for 10 billion more people, and calcium for an extra two billion.

It appears, therefore, that food production and supply aren’t the issue. Rather, it’s access to nutrients that really matters–and that’s where the researchers recognise trade’s role in improving nutrition.

Their estimates showed that compared to a no-trade scenario, food trade between nations currently enables several countries–especially poorer ones–to nourish between 146 and 193 million of their citizens. In general, under a no-trade scenario, nutrient distribution across the planet would be far less equitable, with extreme nutrient surpluses in some nations, while undernutrition and malnutrition worsen elsewhere.

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That doesn’t mean global trade is a clear-cut solution. Many countries, mostly poor ones, experience ongoing deficiencies of nutrients such as zinc and iron. That highlights the damage that protectionist trade policies could do, by imposing tariffs that restrict the flow of vital foods from the most productive countries to those in need. The study makes a bid that countries should start to think of global trade in terms of nutrient flows, not just the quantity of production. For example, some of the world’s most-traded food products are grains, but they’re actually low in crucial micronutrients: if we traded according to nutrient value, we could potentially replace less-nutritious foods with more nutritious ones.

Global trade also poses an environmental challenge, because it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. And, the researchers note, if we prioritise better nutrient flows between countries, it could have unforeseen consequences–such as increasing the market for unsustainable crops like palm oil.

That forces us to confront the trade-offs between protecting the planet, and fighting hunger. In fact, the Sustainable Development Goals lumps together these two objectives, calling for better global nutrition as well as globally sustainable agriculture. Achieving both, it seems, will come down to a fine balancing act.

Source: Wood et. al. “Trade and the equitability of global food nutrient distribution.” Nature Sustainability. 2018.

image: Shutterstock

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