Why the United States and Africa Should Lead a Collaborative, Rules-Based Approach to Food Security

The Reset the Table essay series is published weekly, describing today’s challenges to global food security and proposing U.S. government responses.

The 2020 global pandemic has given us a glimpse into the tenuous relationship between economic systems, global supply chains, climate change, and food security. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts a “global food emergency” absent immediate action, highlighting that we are at a critical turning point, both as nations and as a global community. While this challenge bears some similarity to the 2007-08 food crisis, it is also profoundly different due to the unprecedented scale of the current market disruption and a multitude of factors colliding at once, including climate change, uncertainty in access to agricultural inputs and fertilizer, labor market factors, pest outbreaks, and social disruptions. Food systems are also currently stressed at a time when major fault lines have appeared in the international institutional framework for trade, including the rules-based global trade architecture at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Barriers to food trade in the form of export constraints have already appeared in response to the pandemic; from January to August 2020, a total of 32 jurisdictions had put in place 52 export restrictions. Experts have warned against these measures, which will impact vulnerable economies in particular, calling instead for global collaboration in trade to minimize supply chain disruptions, yet the risk remains that too many countries will choose zero-sum gains in the short term rather than working together to develop a balanced, rules-based approach that can serve the interests of many nations over the long term.

With global food security now intertwined with a global health crisis and massive supply chain shifts, leadership on global food security and trade is needed more than ever before. Signs of hope are emerging in regions like the African continent, which has long been focused on food security, where many countries are now looking to trade as a way out of the pandemic and economic crisis. The United States, which has historically been a global leader in addressing food security and is a significant exporter of food to deficit markets, should continue to play a central role. Below are three avenues for the United States and Africa to lead on trade and food security regionally, bilaterally, and globally.

With global food security now intertwined with a global health crisis and massive supply chain shifts, leadership on global food security and trade is needed more than ever before.

Within Africa, agricultural development and food security are pressing priorities, particularly in light of Covid-19, and recent innovations in African trade policy have created a viable path for progress. African leadership is moving forward with plans to implement the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a monumental new trade arrangement that garnered political support from 54 of 55 African Union (AU) states in record time. The AfCFTA holds the potential to expand trade both within the continent and with the rest of the world, including in agriculture where Africa’s exports have been trending upward, and provides a framework for building upon the foundation of market rules established by the African regional economic communities (RECs), including the eight sub-regional bodies that form the building blocks of the AU. It also represents the world’s largest regional trade agreement in terms of country membership, creating a rules-based trade body second in size only to the WTO. With respect to food security, the AfCFTA will include important concessions on market access and will address critical non-tariff issues, including trade facilitation issues and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures, with a laudable mechanism for tracking non-tariff measures. However, although the agreement recognizes agricultural development and food security among its objectives, it does not yet incorporate a comprehensive approach to food security. Yet, the AfCFTA, which will move forward in stages, is both flexible and rules-based, and this innovative structure will be instrumental in addressing critical challenges presented by the pandemic. For example, a recent AU decision formally authorized future negotiation of a protocol on e-commerce, given the growing importance of digital trade in light of Covid-19, setting a precedent for food security.

To date, the United States is one of the few large economies that has yet to meaningfully engage on trade with the African continent.

Food security should also be central to the U.S. trade relationship with Africa, and the United States could set itself apart among Africa’s trading partners at this historic time as the AfCFTA gains momentum. To date, the United States is one of the few large economies that has yet to meaningfully engage on trade with the African continent. While it is true that the U.S.-African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which has been in place since 2000, has generated gains in some sectors, the program is unilateral and limited in its potential impact, particularly in the agricultural sector. Although the recently launched U.S.-Kenya Trade Agreement and the new U.S. International Development Finance Corporation signal a shift in the U.S. trade and investment relationship with the continent, the United States’ Africa strategy is relatively underdeveloped. The European Union, for example, has an intricate relationship with Africa through the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs); however, the EPAs have been criticized for keeping Africa’s trade potential largely at bay, focusing instead on asymmetrical historical trade arrangements. China, which is now Africa’s largest trading partner, is taking a markedly different approach to trade with Africa, eschewing trade deals for large-scale infrastructure projects through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI stands to strengthen physical market systems, which will be important for making the AfCFTA operational, but it seems to place little emphasis on issues like food security and Africa’s own leadership in determining the rules of trade and investment with and within the continent.

As the pandemic highlights, there is room for a more collaborative approach, and the United States could set a new standard for bilateral engagement. If the U.S.-Kenya Trade Agreement is to be the model for future U.S.-African trade arrangements, however, it should look different than trade agreements of the past. Food security and agriculture would be a natural focal point and would be in the interests of both Kenya (which has prioritized food security due to extreme weather and a severe locust outbreak, among other factors) and the United States (due to both the larger importance of food security and because agricultural products are among top U.S. exports to Kenya). However, focusing mainly on market access and SPS, as many trade agreements do, although important, will likely not be enough to fully address food security challenges.

A deal between the United States and Kenya would also have broader implications and could either establish a new model or represent a significant setback in global food security efforts. National interests and the bilateral relationship should be approached in light of Kenya’s role in African regional integration and the direction in which the continent is heading. In addition, how the agreement is designed and implemented will really matter. If balanced and aligned with Africa’s trade framework, the agreement and the rules it encompasses could not only be a foundation for deeper U.S.-African trade ties, but could also pave the way for a global approach on trade and food security. Ultimately, bilateral, regional, and global approaches will need to reflect a broader range of needs, in particular those of vulnerable economies, and address issues of global priority like export measures, safeguards, public stockholding, and additional commitments on domestic support, while also incorporating other areas like preservation of biodiversity, recognition of Africa’s efforts to improve trade in agricultural inputs, and strengthened transport networks and trade corridors that can deliver on food security.

As countries navigate the Covid-19 pandemic and more frequent climate events, achieving global food security will require innovative approaches, strengthened leadership, and enhanced collaboration. Given the central role that trade will continue to play in food security, a cooperative, rules-based approach presents a promising path to feed a changing world as well as a stronger model for engagement between the United States and African countries.

Katrin Kuhlmann is the president and founder of New Markets Lab (NML), a nonprofit law and development center; a visiting professor at Georgetown Law; and a senior associate with the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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