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Trade restrictions by a few countries threaten food security

Food supply chains have been severely disrupted by events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, drought, and labor shortages. A team of experts led by Aalto University reports that trade restrictions by a few countries could have far-reaching consequences for crop prices and food security. 

“We quantified the potential effects of these co-occurring global and local shocks globally with their impacts on food security,” explained Professor Matti Kummu. He said the results of this research have critical implications for how we should prepare for future events like the coronavirus pandemic.

“We saw that trade restrictions by only a few key actors can create large short-term price spikes in the world market export price of grains, which can lead to food insecurity in import-dependent countries,” explained study co-author Theresa Falkendal.

The researchers investigated how trade restrictions and local production shocks of rice, wheat, and maize could impact their supply and price. These three staple crops are essential for food security worldwide.

The study revealed that trade restrictions by only three key exporters of each crop would increase the price of wheat by 70 percent, the price of rice by 60 percent, and the price of maize by 40 percent. When these restrictions were combined with the local shocks that occurred last year, the researchers determined that prices would nearly double.

“This is the result of an increasingly interconnected world, in which the majority of countries are dependent on imported food and, so, vulnerable to this kind of shock,” said Professor Kummu.

“It’s important to realize that food security depends on both local and remote conditions, and imprudent policy decisions in the rich part of the world can plunge people into real hardship in poorer parts of the world,” said Falkendal.

However, the shock scenarios modeled by the researchers could become much more common as a result of global warming.

The pandemic’s effect on agricultural supply chains, as well as crops destroyed by locusts in parts of Africa and South Asia, have had a devastating effect on food security.

“To help prevent such devastation in the future, we need proactive strategies, like reducing food waste, changing the diet towards more plant-based protein sources, and increasing the yields sustainably particularly in the most vulnerable countries,” said Professor Kummu.

“While sustainable design of agricultural systems is important, it must go hand-in-hand with efforts to improve political decisions and accountability,” said study co-author Michael J. Puma.

“It’s essential that humanitarian institutions strengthen their efforts to support democratic accountability around the world, which will ultimately help us to avoid severe food insecurity and famine.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Food.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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