With high commodity prices and droughts impacting crops in the U.S. and Russia in 2012, food importing countries are giving more consideration to food security. The World Food Summit in 1996 defined the term, “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. If a country is to import part of its food supply, it must also export products of value to the rest of the world.
The concept of food security is often confused with food self-sufficiency, the belief that all of a country’s food supply should be produced within its borders. Since few countries have the range of climates, soil types and worker skills to produce all types of food efficiently, that is not a practical public policy goal.
The relevant economic approach to food security is comparative advantage in which a country ‘produces what it does best and trades for the rest’. For example, Brazil is a large country with excellent agricultural resources that follows the comparative advantage principle. It exports 38 million metric tons (MMT) of soybeans and 13 MMT of corn in addition to sugar, cotton, beef, pork and chicken meat. It also imports 7 MMT of wheat each year, much of it from its close neighbor Argentina. Brazil could produce more wheat, but its climate and soil types are not conducive to high wheat yields. Argentina has areas that are drier and cooler and more appropriate for wheat production. If Brazil devoted more land to wheat, it would be less well-off economically as would the rest of the world, especially importers of corn and soybeans. Comparative advantage has driven the increases in productivity that are at the heart of increasing international trade and food security.
Food security is an economic issue that must be managed in a political framework where there is great potential for economic inefficiencies in political decision making. It is a political issue for all countries, equal to peace and physical security. At the heart of a food security policy is pro-growth economic policy. Food is produced using physical resources that are in short supply globally. Land, water, fertilizer, machinery, labor and management all have costs and must be used efficiently.
For most people in the world food security is about income, not about the supply of food. As Timothy Groser, Trade Minister for New Zealand, has noted, Singapore has no farms and no people starving. It has the world’s fifth highest per capita GDP at almost $60,000 per year. There are cases of temporary famine in the world and food supply disruptions caused by war, but most countries and people who are food insecure are economically poor. Food security is a local problem, not a global one, and has to be solved at the local level.
In the 1950s and 60s the Republic of Korea was food insecure with a limited amount of land in relation to its population and low incomes. It had to depend on U.S. government food assistance programs. Today Korea is ranked 40th in the world in GDP per capita at $32,100 in 2011, a little less than Japan and a little more than Italy. Korea still imports food, but its citizens can afford to import food because they make products like car, ships and cell phones that others in the world want to buy. Countries with a per capita GDP of $500-1000 per year are food insecure on a continuous basis because most citizens do not earn sufficient income.
A high per capita GDP does not mean that a country should ignore the efficient use of its domestic agricultural resources. Efficient use of domestic resources to produce food provides a firm foundation upon which to build strong food security policies. Comparative advantage used by large agricultural producers like Brazil can be used by countries of all sizes. Farmers in a country may not have an absolute advantage in any product, but they will have a comparative advantage in some products and, obviously, have advantages in transportation and freshness.
The biggest challenge for all countries is to have agricultural policies that encourage farmers to produce commodities for which they have a comparative advantage and are in demand by consumers. Farmers want to continue to grow crops and livestock they have traditionally grown. They then lobby their government leaders for policies to support growing those products even though they may be economically inefficient and do not enhance food security. This has been true in the U.S., the EU and Japan and other higher income countries. Farmers have to accept change and public policy institutions have to promote change or they will make inefficient use of valuable domestic resources that could add to food security.
At the top of every policy list are foods unique to the country and/or culture. Every crop and livestock group wants to be included with favorable policies for them, but probably only a few products truly fit that definition. The choices may be obvious or may be highly subjective, but these critical choices will shape the rest of the domestic food security effort.
Food security is a long-term public policy. Unless there are large population migrations from food shortages to food surplus areas of the world, and few people are talking of that happening, large shipments of food will continue to be needed every year unless food production methods change substantially.
Price volatility is an issue and will remain until more buyers and seller make long- term commitments to global markets. Small and thin international markets relative to highly protected domestic markets lead to volatility. Open trade for buyers and sellers and the free flow of market information reduces volatility. The current string of broken contracts in the cotton trade is a reminder of the importance of honoring contracts made during turbulent times. Without contracts that buyers and sellers honor food security issues will be much harder to resolve.
From an economic policy point of view, markets are the most efficient allocators of resources and respond to both surpluses and shortages. Most governments are probably not capable of not intervening when supply shocks occur. Citizens look to government leaders for assurances that food will be on the table – to provide that sense of food security. That should be done while leaving markets free to operate. Open domestic and international markets are policymakers’ best friends for food security to the benefit of consumers and taxpayers.
Ross Korves is an economic policy analyst with Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).