‘Free trade can prevent hunger caused by future shifts in climate patterns’

wheat and corn af feag atrInternational trade can compensate for regional reductions in agricultural production and reduce hunger when protectionist measures and other barriers to trade are eliminated, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change

Climate change has consequences for agriculture worldwide, with clear differences between regions. Expectations are that sufficient food will remain available in the Northern hemisphere, but in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, falling crop yields may lead to higher food prices and a sharp rise in hunger.

According to the authors, further liberalisation of world trade can relieve these regional differences. Food deficiencies can, for instance, be reduced if regions like Europe and Latin America, where wheat and corn thrive, increase their production and export food to regions under heavy pressure from global warming. In other words, international trade could allow us to make the most of regional differences in climate change impacts.

The researchers’ recommendations outlined in the paper are based on 60 scenarios that took into account different forms of trade policy, along with climate change varying from a 2°C to a 4°C warming of the Earth, with 2050 set as the horizon for each scenario. Under the current level of trade integration, for example, climate change could lead to up to 55mn people undernourished in 2050. Without adaptation through trade, global climate change impacts would however increase this by around 33 per cent to 73mn additional undernourished people.

“Our study shows that a seemingly negligible decrease in global average per capita food availability – by minus three per cent – would lead to a huge increase – 45 per cent – in the population at risk of hunger. This is because of the inequalities in access to food within individual countries. Ignoring these inequalities would lead to a severe underestimation of climate change impacts,” explained study coauthor and acting IIASA ecosystems services and management programme director, Petr Havlik.

Import tariffs present a major barrier to international trade in food

The results further show that import tariffs present a major barrier to international trade in food as they increase the cost of importing basic food crops like wheat, corn or rice. Around a fifth of the worldwide production of these grains is traded internationally. That makes good trade agreements very important in the battle against hunger. The early 21st century saw a major liberalisation of the international market, which caused the average import tariffs on agricultural products in Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to drop by a third.

There are also other barriers. In some countries, the logistical aspect is a sticking point. Roads are sometimes poor or ports are not equipped for loading and unloading large container ships, while countless complicated trade procedures can drive up the effective cost of trade. The authors argue that a global food strategy must go hand in hand with improvements to trade infrastructure.

 “Sadly enough, we see that in times of crisis, countries are inclined to adopt a protectionist stance. Since the start of the current corona crisis, around ten countries have closed their borders for the export of important food crops,” said study lead author Charlotte Janssens, a guest researcher in the IIASA ecosystems services and management programme and a researcher at KU Leuven. “In the context of climate change, it is highly important that they avoid such protectionist behaviour and instead continue to maintain and utilise the international trade framework.”

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