Global food production increased by 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. Half of the net exports 2010 were originating from just five countries.[i] After the food price hike in 2007-2008 and in a world that many feel is less secure, there is a renewed interest in food self-sufficiency.

Food self-sufficiency is, however, widely critiqued by economists as a misguided approach to food security that places political priorities ahead of economic efficiency. In the paper Food self-sufficiency: Making sense of it, and when it makes sense, in the journal Food Policy, Jennifer Clapp makes the case that policy choice on this issue is more than a choice between the extremes of relying solely on homegrown food and a fully open trade policy for foodstuffs. All countries rely on imports for at least some of their food consumption, including large food exporters that produce far more food than they consume. Even North Korea, the country with policies that most approach autarky, still imports food and accepts international food assistance. Clapp recommends that we should instead realize that there is a continuum between the extremes and that there is not one correct policy response for all countries at all times.

Before even discussing food self-sufficiency or not, one has to agree on what it means. There are several definitions and measurements. Some define self-sufficiency such that a country should produce a quantity (or calories) that equals or exceeds the consumption, but food is both imported and exported. Sweden is such a country. In the public debate we are told that half of the food consumed in Sweden is imported, which might be correct if measured in monetary value. Meanwhile, Sweden produces more or less the calories it needs, but it exports a big share of its grain harvest while it imports, soy, wine, vegetables and fruits (just to mention a few important streams). The value of food imports is considerably higher than the value of food exports, so from an economic perspective, Sweden is not at all food self-sufficient.

Self-sufficiency should not be mixed up with food security. Food self-sufficiency does not guarantee food security within a country. Food security as a concept does not distinguish whether that food is imported from abroad or grown domestically A rich country such as Japan is deemed food secure even if they import a lot and there are many food exporting countries that have large food insecure populations. Then there is the concept of food sovereignty that promotes the right of countries and communities to shape their own food policies. The food sovereignty movement calls for a greater reliance on domestically produced foods and is mostly critical to free trade, without ruling out trade as such.

Clapp identifies four arguments often voiced against food self-sufficiency from a food security perspective.

  • The first argument is that drought or natural disasters can lead to severe shortfalls in production, leading to periodic episodes of hunger for countries that do not engage in food trade.
  • The second argument is the economists’ belief that market intervention designed to insulate domestic markets from competition results in inefficiencies and in lower production and higher food prices, thereby harming long-term food security.
  • Thirdly, if farmers are denied the possibility to export, they are deprived of income which could enhance their food security.
  • Fourth, not all countries have the natural resource base that would allow them to supply all of their own food needs domestically, sustainably, for instance due to a shortage of water. The former Director General of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, for example, considers food trade to be an ‘‘environmental obligation”[ii]

Clapp, however, identifies that there are many valid reasons for a country to increase food self- sufficiency and decrease its dependency to international trade. In particular, she states that the following groups of countries might benefit from increasing its own production for domestic consumption:

  • Poor countries with high levels of food insecurity, as they can minimize risk and costs associated with food price hikes.
  • Countries with volatile export earnings, as sudden drops in major export commodities might result in inability to purchase foods.
  • Countries that have a sufficient natural resource base to be self-sufficient. Clapp notes that there are some 60 countries in the world which might not be able to produce all the food they need, but most countries can.
  • Countries where the main dietary staples are controlled by a handfull of global suppliers. She gives the example of rice which is a very important staple in many countries and only a few major exporters.
  • Problems in one of the major exporters can lead to serious disruptions in supply and rapid price increases.
  • Countries with a large population. When very populous nations buy big quantities in global markets the prices and supply will be strongly affected to the detriment both of those nations and all other countries importing the same commodity.
  • Finally, Clapp mentions countries at risk of trade disruption because of war or other tensions. Most countries consider the ability to ensure food supplies in times of crisis to be a national security issue. It can be difficult to rapidly increase production when such crisis occur so countries may want to invest in their domestic agricultural capacity.

Clapp concludes that:

”A more nuanced approach based on the real-world application of food self-sufficiency policies does not view the concept as an either/or proposition, but rather sees it in relative terms. Such an approach could potentially create room for a more productive policy dialogue on this issue at the international level.”

In addition to the paper of Ms Clapp, I would add some pertinent drawbacks of international trade in foods.

Europe has let almost 100 million hectares of farm land revert to forest or lying idle, while European farmers buy soy from South America and European food industries buy palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia. Europe could produce those, or equivalent crops, within its own territory, but it is simply cheaper to import it.[iii] Thus, trade has diminished the European production and created a trade dependency. Only a quarter of the trade is with crops which could not be grown in the importing country.[iv] (read more here). The higher proportion of food that is globally traded, the bigger dependencies will be created when regions that could produce their own food cease to do that. More and more people will be structurally dependent on global trade; trade becomes its own justification.

The possibility to move food from areas of surplus to areas of shortage (food aid) should be a backup measure which will not be supplied by the market but by governments. The food security argument for global trade is therefore not valid.

The increasing distance between consumption and production 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.[v]

Competition drives farmers in to more and more specialization and larger scale in order to cut costs. This leads to  farms going into mono-cropping and, ultimately, economies of scale will turn whole landscapes to one or a few lines of production/commodities. Which is perfectly in line with the theory of comparative advantage but a disaster for nature and sustainability of the production system.

The carrot for trade is profit, but the much bigger driver is the stick of competition. On the level of the individual basic actor in the food system, the farmer, the main influence of trade is competition. It is competition that drives mechanization and structural transformation of the farm sector, it is competition which makes it necessary for farmers to externalize costs to the environment, to workers or to livestock. It seems to me that reducing competition would be an important objective for a food trade policy.

Trade without competition, anyone?

[i] 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

[ii] Pascal Lamy Speaks on the Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People. Speech at The Economist Conference ‘‘Feeding the World”, Geneva, February 8.

[iii] Rundgren, G 2014, Global Eating Disorder.

[iv] 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)

[v] Clapp, J. Distant Agricultural Landscapes, Sustain Sci (2015) 10:305-316