Food Trade and Food Rights. (Essay)

By Kent, George | UN Chronicle, March 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Food Trade and Food Rights. (Essay)


Kent, George, UN Chronicle


In a recent UN Chronicle issue [No. 3, 2001], Asbjorn Eide pointed out that the obligation to protect the right to food "requires measures by the State to ensure that enterprises or individuals do not deprive individuals of their access to adequate food". What if that deprivation does not result from the actions of any enterprise or individual, or any specific actor, but instead results from the nature of the social and economic system in which people are embedded? What if it is the market system itself, and not bad actors within it, that causes the problem? And what if people are unable to get enough food not only because of the operations of market systems within countries, but also because of the patterns of international trade? Who then has what responsibilities to assure that every individual's right to adequate food is realized?

Many suggest that the globalization of international trade will benefit everyone. The rising tide of trade supposedly will lift all ships. But it may be that instead, as the critics suggest, it lifts only yachts, and swamps vessels that are leaky and decrepit.

The global economic system, like the systems within advanced industrial nations, does a lot of people a lot of good. However, at the same time, it does harm to others. Weak groups are often hurt by patterns of trade, debt servicing and structural adjustment. The economic system that advantages the strong disadvantages the weak, making them even more vulnerable.

Global trade contributes to the steadily widening gaps between rich and poor. Between 1960 and 1989, economic growth in the richest nations was 2.7 times as fast as in the poorest nations. In 1989, the nations with the richest 20% of the world's population received about 82.7% of total global income, while the nations with the poorest 20% of the population received only 1.4%-a ratio of 59 to 1. The World Bank's World Development Report 2000/2001 acknowledges: "In 1960 per capita GDP gross domestic product] in the richest 20 countries was 18 times that in the poorest 20 countries. By 1995 this gap had widened to 37 times."

The dilemmas of trade are raised in relief when we examine the patterns in world food trade. Most international food trade takes place among the richer countries of the world. Only a small share of world food trade is among the poorer countries. There is, however, a substantial amount of trade between poor and rich countries.

In this trade between rich and poor, there is a net flow of food from poorer to richer countries. The developed countries import more than they export, while the developing countries export more than they import. The poor feed the rich.

Is this problematic? Market advocates point out that poor countries are paid for this food, and they would not engage in the production and export of food unless they saw it as advantageous. Moreover:

* A large share of the international trade in food products is comprised of high value products that are of little interest to consumers in the poorer countries.

* Most food trade is among developed countries. The net flow of food from developing to developed countries is relatively small.

* Foreign exchange earnings from the export of highvalue food products can be used to import much larger volumes of low-cost foods, with a large net nutritional gain.

* There is no systematic evidence that export-oriented countries suffer from higher levels of malnutrition.

* Food exports yield substantial foreign exchange earnings for the exporting countries.

Critics raise different points:

* Food exports can lead to declining food security in poor exporting countries.

* Export-oriented food production diverts labour and capital away from production for local communities.

* Although earnings from exports conceivably might be used to import cheap food for those most in need, usually they are not used that way. …

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