OPINION: Coronavirus, resilience, and food security: how can trade policy help?

by Jonathan Hepburn | International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)
Thursday, 30 April 2020 11:37 GMT

A vendor arranges fruits at his stall at an open-air food market that has been reopened, during the coronavirus disease. Cisternino, Italy, April 27, 2020. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Pandemic highlights trade policy frameworks' need for adjustment to withstand the food system shocks that climate change will bring.

Jonathan Hepburn is a Senior Policy Advisor with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), where he works on agriculture, trade and food security.

With the coronavirus outbreak prompting widespread restrictions on the movement of goods, services and people, UN agencies are warning that the resulting hit to jobs and incomes could seriously worsen hunger and malnutrition. While there is an urgent need to ensure poor consumers can still access food, governments also need to ensure that policies on trade and markets enable the food system to cope with future shocks and volatility.

During the 2007-08 and 2010-11 price spike episodes, measures such as export bans and restrictions contributed to worsening shortages on global markets, raising food prices beyond the reach of poor consumers in food importing countries. However, agencies such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have said that recent harvests have been robust, and stocks are ample. 

Similarly, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which is tracking food export restrictions, finds that more such measures have recently been applied – but, at least so far, they remain less widespread than during past food price spikes. Low and falling energy and commodity prices provide a different backdrop to the current crisis, although major grain exporters such as Russia, Ukraine and Vietnam have been among those imposing or contemplating restrictions on exports.

While policy-makers are understandably focused on urgent actions to tackle the immediate health and food security challenges, governments ought also to revisit how trade policy frameworks can better enable the food system to address future disruptions – including those associated with the type of extreme weather events that are due to become more intense and frequent as the climate changes.

This means equipping countries with the tools they need to tackle volatility on global markets – but without adversely harming vulnerable producers and consumers in other countries in the process. In this respect, big players bear greater responsibility than smaller ones – whether they are large food exporters, or big importing countries.

At the World Trade Organization (WTO), delegates are continuing to negotiate a long-overdue update to the trade body’s 25-year-old rulebook on food and agriculture. Ensuring the food system can address unexpected shocks and volatility should be part of negotiators’ goals in doing so.

Exempting humanitarian food aid from export restrictions could provide one simple and straightforward way to ensure trade policies do not impede access to food for vulnerable people – a commitment which the G-20 group of major economies first made nine years ago, and restated on 21 April this year. 

Similarly, a cross-regional group of 50 WTO members, including exporting and importing countries at different income levels, has now put forward an 8-point plan aimed at ensuring that trade measures contribute to food and nutrition security during the coronavirus pandemic.

Increased transparency and better advance warning about the measures governments impose could also help, as the chair of the WTO agriculture talks has said recently.

But policy-makers around the world need to look much more comprehensively at whether the trade policy framework we have inherited today is fit for purpose – and ready to withstand the food system shocks that climate change will bring.

At least for the moment, the lesson of the coronavirus outbreak seems to be that much more work is needed if global food security is not to become a casualty again when the next crisis strikes.