Harshita Bhasin and Anirban Dasgupta warn of the perils of living on imported food.
The food crisis fueling an ongoing rush of inflation globally was already brewing due to the impact of Covid-19 and climate change and has been exacerbated significantly by the Ukraine conflict. Whether the Ukraine effect has been operative entirely through a real deficit in global food supplies or via increased speculation and hoarding remains a moot point in the assessment of the ultimate impact on food security.
On 29 July 2022, World Bank’s food security update reported:
“Record high food prices have triggered a global crisis that will drive millions more into extreme poverty, magnifying hunger and malnutrition, while threatening to erase hard-won gains in development……As of July 29, 2022, the Agricultural Price Index is 19% higher compared to January 2021. Maize and wheat prices are 16% and 22% higher, respectively, compared to January 2021, while rice prices are about 14% lower.”
On the same day, the heads of several multilateral organisations issued a joint statement that reiterated the extent of the food crisis, quoting an alarming figure of 345m acutely food-insecure people across 82 countries.
In a familiar template, international agencies have called on the global community for urgent action to address the crisis by facilitating international trade and extending emergency financing or food aid to the worst-hit countries. Despite this oft-repeated advice, a number of countries have, during the current food crisis, increased trade restrictions on key commodities to safeguard their domestic supply and manage domestic inflation. And the brunt is borne by countries dependent on international trade for their food security.
Mainstream economists…. policy advice… is to disallow export restrictions on food commodities and thus prevent artificial shortage of food based on domestic considerations.
The view that unfettered trade holds the solution to shortage and volatility in the global food market is shared by most mainstream economists. Food policy authority Christopher Barrett presents the case clearly when he identifies the “ill-advised bans by a few major food-producing countries” as a key factor in precipitating the current food crisis. His policy advice in this respect is to devise new trade agreements under the aegis of the World Trade Organization to disallow export restrictions on food commodities and thus prevent artificial shortage of food based on domestic considerations. In this line of argument, the question of achieving food self-sufficiency for import dependent countries has been mostly ignored.
Historically, food self-sufficiency featured prominently in the development goals of most developing countries. However, the push towards trade liberalisation in the 1980s made many countries, especially those in the African continent, dependent on imports for key food grains. The 2007-08 food crisis exposed the fragility of the global food market on account of rising interlinkages with financial and energy markets, and severely impacted food security in sub-Saharan Africa among other regions. Unfortunately, this did not lead to any discernible policy shift towards self-sufficiency.
This current situation has revived the threat of a balance of payment crisis along with food shortages for several developing nations, including many in Africa. The dependence on export of a few commodities to finance their burgeoning food imports is the immediate challenge for many of these economies but the root of the problem is the increasing reliance on food imports for basic consumption needs in the first place. Between 2016 and 2018, Africa imported about 85% of its food from outside the continent leading to an annual food import bill of $35bn which is projected to reach $110bn by 2025.
Some commentators argue that Africa’s food import bill is not a concern since many African nations are net food exporters on account of high volumes of exports of cash crops. However, Africa’s cereal import dependency raises questions on its ability to tide through global shocks such as the Ukraine war given the volatility in food prices and demand for Africa’s exports.
Despite decades of international attention on boosting agricultural productivity in Africa, the continent continues to import massive quantities of food staples.
Long periods of low international food prices have undermined Africa’s cereal production as small-scale producers find themselves uncompetitive in the face of unchecked food imports. Despite decades of international attention on boosting agricultural productivity in Africa, the continent continues to import massive quantities of food staples. What has been missing is large-scale public investment and subsidies to agriculture which were crucial to the success of the Green Revolution in Asia. For a continent that would account for a quarter of the world’s population by 2050, global and national efforts must be redirected towards achieving substantial cereal self-sufficiency in Africa (see box: Kenya – parched of investment ).
A case in contrast is India. The country has had a food surplus for some time in terms of cereals although import dependence persists for pulses and some oilseeds. However, food exports are more than sufficient to cover these import expenses, making India self-sufficient in food.
In light of this food balance, pro-market commentators have criticised repeatedly the inefficiencies and excess food reserves arising from the public procurement of rice and wheat by the Food Corporation of India. And bans on the export of food commodities by India and others have been widely criticised in international policy circles as a counterproductive measure that destabilises global food markets and causes food inflation. Yet these accumulated stocks helped India avert a hunger crisis as Covid-19 induced lockdowns led to massive loss of livelihood. The public distribution system was used to provide free food grains to nearly 800m people through an emergency response programme that started in April 2020 and continues to this day.
Some degree of food self-sufficiency would have insured these countries against their current extreme food crises
Beyond India, food security has deteriorated severely during recent months in other South Asian countries that do not have similar access to food reserves. Particularly affected are Afghanistan and Sri Lanka where there have been reports of alarming food deficits in the population – 92% in Afghanistan (May 2022) and 53% in Sri Lanka (July 2022). Both countries are dealing with a heavy economic collapse in the past year and the food situation may be an inevitable fallout. But some degree of food self-sufficiency would have insured these countries against their current extreme food crises.
Nevertheless, the criticism of restrictions on food commodity exports imposed by some nations is unfair since national governments are ultimately responsible for their citizens’ welfare. So it is an arguably understandable move when individual countries prioritise domestic objectives of food security and inflation control over global public good during major shocks. This is exactly what happened with Covid-19 vaccines when no number of speeches on international solidarity could detract Western governments from their single-minded pursuit of domestic vaccination goals.
Now is the time to bring self-sufficiency of food back into the policy agenda for all countries that are in a position to pursue such a goal in terms of their agricultural capacity. Clearly not everything that a country consumes needs to come from domestic production entirely. But, recent events have demonstrated that it is critical for medium and large developing countries to produce a substantial share of their total food requirement through domestic means.
In a politically and ecologically uncertain world, food security needs to be built more and more along the lines of food self-sufficiency contrary to what policy manuals tell us.