Does international trade make all parties better off? That question has preoccupied economists since well before David Ricardo published his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation in 1817, which outlined a theory of comparative advantage still taught to economics students the world over. According to that theory, trade leaves no country worse off if countries choose to specialize in producing and exporting the goods for which they have the lowest opportunity cost out of all the goods they can produce. In other words, trade is not a zero-sum game, and in most cases trade makes both countries better off.
Although the theory of comparative advantage concludes that trade leaves no country worse off in the aggregate, international trade can generate winners and losers within a given country. It is perhaps for this reason that many people question the theory of comparative advantage and believe that international trade makes certain countries worse off. That belief is especially prevalent when the trade being discussed is that between developing and developed countries, or when the goods being traded are food commodities. Opinions are even stronger when the subject is food exports from developing to developed countries, prompting arguments in favor of food sovereignty.
Indeed, the Declaration of Nyéléni, which was adopted at the 2007 Forum for Food Sovereignty, states that
Food sovereignty … puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. … It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. … Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all peoples and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food.
Food sovereignty advocates therefore argue that food security – adequate nutrition for individuals, no matter the provenance of the food commodities consumed – is not enough. Rather, one of their goals is a greater role for local foods, which necessarily means a smaller role for the international trade of food.
But does the international trade of food really threaten food security? The answer appears to “No,” according to my most recent paper, coauthored with Frank Asche, Cathy Roheim, Marty Smith, and Sigbjørn Tveteras, and which was accepted last week for publication in World Development. Continue reading