Food security is built around trade these days and not actual production

How easily can foodstuffs be traded across borders? That determines food security hierarchy more than anything else. Image Credit: Pixabay

Food security is not about food production only. As a concept and as a national security matter, it has become more globalised and will continue to be so.

A few multinational companies that control most food trade played, and continue to play, an imperative role in processing and moving food commodities from one region to another. That, and other factors such as food aid and trade deals inclusive of agriculture, have turned food commodities that they focused on into strategic staples in regions and countries where they were not originally.

To illustrate, Mexico had the production and price of maize under control before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed, resulting in a flood of cheaper to produce maize from elsewhere. Farmers lost their livelihoods, and the price of maize became trade-controlled and influenced.

The same happened in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, when wheat was either cheaply imported or provided as food aid that was sometimes part of a larger aid package to countries. Consequently, the region lost its production comparative advantage, wherever and whenever it had one, and the region’s diet became increasingly ‘wheatified’.

The price of wheat then became a prominent factor in the region’s troubles and a trigger to many of its protests, like in 2011, with diminishing domestic production to flatten price fluctuations.

Another example here is from the UAE. My grandmother used to be the family holder of a subsidy card to purchase rice when she was a child in the 20th century. Rice is not a food commodity that can be naturally and cheaply produced in the UAE.

Rice was, and still is, imported from nearby regions that possess comparative advantage to produce it. The whole process seemed manageable at the time. However, growth in the UAE’s population, in a tremendously globalised food security environment, heightened the need to import various food commodities for a diverse population.

Truly beyond borders

Given that there are limitations on what can be domestically produced at reasonable costs, such a diverse population can never be fed from the country’s own food production. What resulted from these and other examples throughout history is a globalised food security that is driven more and more by food trade, not food production. Saying so does not dismiss food production altogether.

Rather, it explains how food security has become borderless that production comparative advantage could easily shift from regions well entrenched in the production of a food commodity to others that did not necessarily possess such an advantage.

The earlier NAFTA example is a case in point here. Whether production comparative advantage is gained through expensive subsidies and protectionist tariffs is a separate and debatable matter, which is yet to be settled in multilateral organisations like the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Expanding need for land

Notably, the globalisation of food security has been in the work for centuries. Historically, countries achieved self-sufficiency by producing what the land could naturally produce without the intervention of governments of the day through subsidies and protectionist tariffs.

As populations grew beyond what the land can produce to feed them, civilisations grew beyond their initially intended borders to acquire new lands and bring them under their own tillage. Akin to today’s case with multinational companies controlling a majority of food trade, the trade of food and spices centuries ago was controlled by trading companies with colonial affiliations of that time.

To summarise, the notion of food security is no longer determined by food production. The growing role of international food trade in today’s globalised food security will be even more essential in the future. More so as populations continue to grow beyond what the land can naturally and inexpensively produce.

The last thought that I want to leave you with: Will food production keep up with food trade?

Abdulnasser Alshaali

The writer is a UAE based economist.