The Trade and Food Security Debate

The debate on trade and food security boils down to several interconnected issues: development, sustainability, and an approach to trade rules that can better balance between those who need food and those who produce it. While food security encompasses access to and the availability and affordability of food—all of which are directly related to trade and markets—current trade rules fall short. With the shocks in global food markets caused by Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, countries continue to impose export restrictions on essential agricultural commodities despite a loose agreement among members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) not to impose such restrictions. As the WTO’s 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi approaches next week, there is a promising renewed global focus on food security, but the large number of issues on the table and the diverse approaches among different players will make significant progress challenging.

Q1: What are the issues heading into MC13?

A1: Substantively, the food security debate centers on long-standing issues, such as export restrictions and prohibitions, agricultural subsidies and market access, public stockpiling, cotton, the use of temporary import restrictions, and a special safeguard mechanism. Not only do developed and developing economies have different views on many of these issues, some developing economies have emphasized the importance of shifting focus to new areas such as technology transfer and a financing facility for food imports in order to enhance opportunities for developing economies, improve livelihoods, and enhance the affordability of food for resource-poor nations. Sustainability is also central to food security, calling for an emphasis on climate adaptation, water, and sustainable energy. As WTO members get ready for MC13, food security will definitely be on the table, but whether there will be meaningful outcomes remains to be seen. 

Q2: What do the current WTO rules allow?

A2: Food security is a collective global challenge, but international trade rules do not fully provide a means to address it, particularly in a way that works for economic and social development and environmental sustainability. The current legal landscape is incomplete and complicated. International trade rules cover market access, export and import restrictions, and government subsidies, also known as domestic support. They also cover transparency and special provisions for developing economies, called special and differential treatment (S&DT). The WTO Agreement on Agriculture references food security, but it refers to it as a “non-trade concern,” implying that the traditional priorities of market access and nondiscrimination could outweigh food security considerations. 

What do the rules say? For starters, countries can use export restrictions to address “critical shortages of foodstuffs,” even though such measures are generally prohibited, but they must be temporary, transparent, and targeted. Many countries do not follow this closely in practice, however, and there is not enough of a check on these measures in times of crisis. The current rules largely allow countries to act in their own interest rather than coordinate in light of broader food security concerns. Yet, food insecure nations, particularly developing countries that are net food importers, face significant challenges when other countries limit exports of food.

Trade rules also govern domestic support, which can be used to address food security, as well as the needs of low-income and resource-poor producers, to a limited extent. A major concern among developing economies focuses on the rules related to public stockholding for food security purposes, a practice that is currently allowed if purchases are made at market prices. Countries such as India have proposed expanding these provisions, but so far there has not been an agreement outside of a temporary and narrow “peace clause” on legal challenges related to public stockpiling for food security purposes. WTO members have also taken steps to abolish agricultural export subsidies, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), although this commitment has not been fully implemented. For the world’s poorest countries and net food-importing developing countries, the rules provide for some flexibility under S&DT, although this is also limited. 

Q3: Were there any developments at the last WTO Ministerial Conference, and what is likely to happen at the next meeting?

A3: The WTO’s last Ministerial Conference, MC12, in June 2022 moved the needle a bit on trade and food security, although it did not lead to any binding rules and the big issues of export restrictions, public stockholding, and a special safeguard mechanism to deal with a surge in imports were largely deferred. MC12 produced two main outcomes on trade and food security. The first was a decision exempting food from export restrictions when procured for humanitarian purposes by the World Food Program. An incremental step, this exemption does not cover most food needs in least developed countries (LDCs), which fall outside of this humanitarian focus. The second outcome came in the form of the Ministerial Declaration on the Emergency Response to Food Security, which underscored the importance of refraining from export prohibitions and restrictions. However, its impact was watered down by weak “best endeavor” legal language, and it has not led to a change in practice. MC12 also resulted in the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Declaration: Responding to Modern SPS Challenges, which linked implementation of the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures to emerging challenges, including food security and climate change. Hopefully, the MC13 will keep these discussions going and generate more concrete outcomes.

Q4: What are some of the proposals that have been put on the table?

A4: A number of proposals have been tabled to better tailor trade rules to food security. One proposal calls for an exemption from export restrictions or prohibitions for LDCs and net food-importing developing countries, as India has done on an ad hoc basis. Japan and the United Kingdom have advocated for greater transparency in export restrictions, with a number of countries urging that export restrictions should not apply at all to basic food products. Some countries continue to focus on the use of import restrictions, arguing that they should be available in the case of volatile prices or import surges that affect domestic industries, even though, as with export restrictions, import restrictions can disrupt the food supply chain. A number of countries have also stressed that food aid and export credits should not be impacted as agricultural trade is liberalized. 

Many proposals center on domestic support, including suggestions for a holistic approach to subsidies and proposals on the reduction of trade-distorting subsidies. Developing economies and institutions such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development have pressed for an approach that expands what governments are permitted to do under the rules to subsidize low-income or resource-poor farmers. As the Villars Framework for a Sustainable Global Trade System outlines, subsidies should also be reassessed in light of sustainability and climate change, which have key implications for food security. Additionally, proposals from the African Group, Brazil, a bloc of developing countries (G33), and African, Caribbean, and Pacific nations have also revolved around public stockholding. Countries have argued that there should be more latitude in these programs to allow governments to make purchases at administered (and not just market) prices if the programs are designed to support low-income or resource-poor producers. Notably, however, China, India, and negotiating blocs such as the G33 and African Group have maintained that public stockholding needs to be considered on its own and not as part of the larger debate on subsidies, avoiding challenges in past negotiations related to bundling issues and shifting focus away from development priorities. 

Q5: Are there any examples or proposals related to other sectors that could be helpful?

A5: Although agriculture is unique in many ways, the use of export restrictions and other measures during food crises calls to mind restrictions on essential goods such as medicines and personal protective equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic. During a food or health crisis, countries tend to act individually first—addressing domestic needs and leaving countries without productive capacity to wait for lifesaving medicines, vaccines, and affordable food—before collective solutions are even discussed. Trade rules are not well designed to manage the tensions between the countries that have enough production to both meet internal needs and trade and those that do not have the capacity to produce for the domestic market, let alone export. A highly publicized agreement to waive aspects of intellectual property rights for vaccines was reached at MC12 so that countries without production could compel others to produce without too many hurdles. However, this has been criticized as a partial solution, leaving larger issues of industrial diversification and “vaccine sovereignty” for the future, with parallels for food security. In addition, measures related to sustainable development, the environment, and climate change, including rules under multilateral environmental agreements such as the Paris Agreement, will influence how sustainable food systems develop. Energy security and sustainability are also significant factors in food security, while the concept of circularity in the environmental space could also have important applications for addressing food loss and waste.

Q6: Where could the trade and food security debate go from here?

A6: Food security should be placed front and center rather than remaining sidelined as a “non-trade” issue. With some changes, trade rules could improve access to and the availability and affordability of food while also advancing sustainable development. These changes should include a more permanent solution on export restrictions for LDCs and net food-importing developing countries, revised rules on domestic support, greater attention to agricultural inputs, and a revisiting of exceptions that allow countries to justify restrictions individually, since there can be damaging consequences when many countries use exceptional measures such as export restrictions all at once. In addition, rules on agricultural trade and food security should address issues of enhanced livelihoods and access to finance and should be aligned with environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation and adaptation goals. This would necessarily call for a greater focus on sustainable agricultural practices and an increased emphasis on equity, prioritizing the needs of food-importing nations and resource-poor producers. MC13 could make significant advances across many of these areas and set the stage for further work in others, creating global momentum around a sustainable development approach to trade and food security that advances the SDGs and improves “physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food” for all. 

Katrin Kuhlmann is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and a professor at Georgetown Law.

Katrin Kuhlmann
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Global Food and Water Security Program