The complex link between trade, food and climate change

The complex link between trade, food and climate change

April 03, 2020

The complex link between trade, food and climate change

Although apparently distant, the rules of international trade and climate change are closely intertwined with each other and with global food and nutrition systems.

“If we want to tackle the problem of malnutrition and climate change, we need to understand its links with trade agreements and understand how they can support a food system that guarantees nourishment while also being fair and environmentally sustainable.” The statement is made in the journal Nature Food by three experts from the Australian National University in Canberra, who reviewed scientific literature to identify studies on the connection between trade and food systems. “The aim is to show how the main technical and political aspects of this relationship can influence malnutrition and climate change,” explain the authors.

Global trade

As many as 164 countries around the world are currently members of the World Trade Organization, WTO, created in 1995 to oversee all international trade agreements between member states. The WTO is based on two principles: gradual liberalization and non-discrimination. Over the years, however, many have felt that WTO agreements have not kept pace with the real pace of globalization and consequently numerous bilateral or regional agreements have developed which have created new scenarios, particularly in respect of investments. All this inevitably affects malnutrition and climate change, including through food systems. In this context, one of the aspects highlighted by the authors particularly concerns the removal of market barriers in the agri-food sector. “The removal of market barriers to trade in agriculture-related commodities represents an important strategy to reduce food loss and the volatility of the price of food, especially in low and middle income countries,” say the authors, recalling that the price of food and its availability have a major impact on food safety and under-nutrition.  

Beyond the technical aspects

To fully understand the link between trade, food systems, nutrition and climate change, however, according to the authors, one needs to go beyond the more technical problems to find out who the actors involved are and how they can influence this relationship. “Many of the policy actions needed to tackle malnutrition and climate change go beyond the health and climate portfolio and require coordinated actions from different sectors and at different levels,” the experts point out. And we must work on the ideas and beliefs surrounding food that for many years have prioritized market aspects over those related to food safety. Taking successful action in such a complex scenario to overcome malnutrition and climate change is certainly not easy, but some steps in the right direction have already been taken, such as the definition of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the proclamation by the UN’s General Assembly of the Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025) which includes “trade and investments to improve nutrition” among its actions. “An interdisciplinary approach is needed to understand and deal with the tensions between commercial, nutritional and climatic objectives and outcomes” say the authors, who conclude by recalling the importance of identifying the structural changes needed in the existing system of trade and of understanding why these changes have not yet been implemented

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