Our Ability to Nourish the Planet Depends on International Trade

New data points to ways nutritionists might lobby for changes in trade and food aid to improve the nutrient availability for billions of people, researchers Jessica Fanzo and Stephen Wood say.

Written by Jessica Fanzo, Stephen Wood Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Pakistani laborers load sacks of grain on a truck at the main wholesale market in Karachi, Pakistan.ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

What distinguishes nutritionists from agronomists is a focus on feeding the world well, rather than strictly optimizing the production of commodities. Nutritionists, therefore, have to consider how food is produced, how it gets to consumers, how consumers make choices about what to eat and how the food they eat affects their health.

New data points to a way nutritionists might lobby for changes in trade and food aid, among other mechanisms, to improve the nutrient availability for billions of people.

Much of the current discussion among researchers and policymakers about potentially feeding 10 billion people is rooted in an agronomic perspective of how to most efficiently produce food. However, what is needed is knowing whether this food will meet the nutritional requirements of a growing population.

In a recent article in Nature Sustainability, we – along with several co-authors – quantified the current amount of nutrients – not food items – in the global food supply, and explored how the distribution of those nutrients would look without our current system of international trade. We showed that annually, at the global level, there is a surplus of nutrients that could meet the nutrient needs of more people than is currently happening, depending on the nutrient. We estimated that at the least 0.07 million more people could get folate and 16.79 billion more people could access vitamin B12.

Hong Kong has enough vitamin A in its food supply to meet the needs of a population nine times its size. Malawi, by contrast, only has enough vitamin A to meet the needs of a country 40 percent of its size. We estimate that our world without trade would also lead to fewer people being able to meet their nutritional needs, again depending on the nutrient. For example, 934 million will be deprived of protein and at 146 million will not be able to fulfill their vitamin A requirements without trade.

That’s an alarming number, but how is this relevant to nutritionists, many of whom work at sub-global and sub-national scales?

Our work highlights that the potential for local-scale nutrition interventions to succeed depends on the national (and international) policy context. Nutritionists should continue to focus on doing high-quality, local-level work, but should also not shy away from attempting to influence broad-scale policies that could impact food and nutrient availability.

This could involve directly lobbying national and international bodies, such as the World Food Program and national governments that have leverage over food aid programs. Current food aid – which is linked to trade policies – currently prioritizes staple grains that are rich in nutrients that are sufficient in most countries but deficient in the micronutrients that are often most needed. For instance, sending rice to northern Niger might meet a short-term caloric deficit that could help stave off acute malnutrition, but won’t fulfill the long-term nutrient needs of the target population. Increasing the nutritional diversity of food aid could be an excellent starting point for increasing the availability of food nutrients in national food supplies.

Not all trade patterns are shaped by policy, though. Some are shaped by demand. One potential area of influence for nutritionists could be shaping consumer demand for nutrient-rich food items.

Although individual consumers in lower-income countries – where we found the impact of trade to be most beneficial – do not have global market influence, their aggregate demands can be important. Low-income countries in West Africa, like Senegal, which have strong national demand for rice, can be important rice importers, despite having low per-capita income. Thus, local-scale efforts to shift consumer preferences could have important implications for trade patterns. If efforts to shift demands to nutrient-rich food items were successful at an aggregate scale it could influence by creating a substantial aggregate market demand. This has occurred already with growing demand for diets rich in sugar, oil and meat, though this particular demand shift has led to negative nutritional outcomes.

But there are many challenges and limitations associated with trade. First, the foods that are most easily traded, such as staple grains, are often lowest in composition of micronutrients in which many countries are deficient. However, this can be mitigated by encouraging the demand of high-nutrient foods, and for those to be traded regionally. Second, there is no guarantee that people with greatest need for imported nutrients will have access; instead, the distribution of food items – and associated nutrients – would depend on the ability to pay. Third, increased specialization associated with trade can increase nutrient supply, but could also lead to environmental damage if specialization is focused on environmentally harmful crops, such as large-scale oil palm plantations. Finally, trade can increase nutrient supply but can also make countries vulnerable to sudden changes in global trade patterns, whether due to price shocks, political shifts, environmental changes or other situations.

Our analysis demonstrates the key role that international trade plays in the ability of countries to meet their nutritional needs. Influencing trade patterns for positive change can be challenging. But avoiding harm can be just as important. Protectionist trade policies – enacted most likely for political reasons – could have negative implications for food security.

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