An international team of researchers investigated the effects of trade on hunger in the world because of climate-induced crop yield changes. The conclusion is encouraging; international trade can compensate for regional reductions in agricultural production and reduce hunger when protectionist measures and other barriers to trade are eliminated.

Climate change has consequences for agriculture worldwide, with clear differences between regions. Expectations are that sufficient food will remain available in the Northern Hemisphere. However, in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, falling crop yields may lead to higher food prices and a sharp increase in hunger.

According to the authors of the new study published in Nature Climate Change, further liberalisation of world trade can relieve these regional differences. Food deficiencies can, for instance, be reduced if regions like Europe and Latin America, where wheat and corn thrive, increase their production and export food to regions under heavy pressure from global warming. In other words, international trade could allow us to make the most of regional differences in climate change impacts.

Scenarios based on trade policy

The researchers’ recommendations outlined in the paper are based on 60 scenarios that took into account different forms of trade policy, along with climate change varying from a 2 to a 4 °C warming of the Earth, with 2050 set as the horizon for each scenario. Under the current level of trade integration, for example, climate change could lead to up to 55 million people being undernourished by 2050. Without adaptation through trade, global climate change impacts would, however, increase this by around 33% to 73 million additional undernourished people.

“Our study shows that a seemingly negligible decrease of 3% in global average per capita food availability would lead to a huge increase of 45% in the population at risk of hunger. This is because of the inequalities in access to food within individual countries. Ignoring these inequalities would lead to a severe underestimation of climate change impacts,” explains Petr Havlik, study co-author and acting director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) Ecosystems Services and Management Programme.

The results further show that import tariffs present a major barrier to international trade in food as they increase the cost of importing basic food crops like wheat, corn or rice. Around a fifth of the worldwide production of these grains is traded internationally, which makes good trade agreements very important in the battle against hunger.

The early 21st century saw a major liberalisation of the international market, which caused the average import tariffs on agricultural products in Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia to drop by a third. The research indicates that this liberalisation makes global food provision less vulnerable to climate change and that further reduction and phasing-out of tariffs can intensify this positive effect.

The role of infrastructure

There are also other barriers. In some countries, the logistical aspect is a sticking point. Roads are sometimes poor, or ports are not equipped for loading and unloading large container ships, while countless complicated trade procedures can drive up the effective cost of trade. The authors, therefore, argue that a global food strategy must go hand in hand with improvements to trade infrastructure.

The study highlights that where barriers to trade are eliminated, around 20 million people will still endure undernourishment due to climate change. While this number is high, it is a vast improvement on the 73 million people that would potentially have been exposed to hunger without the suggested measures. In the milder climate scenarios, an intensive liberalisation of trade may prevent even more people from enduring hunger owing to climate change.

However, the liberalisation of international trade may also involve potential dangers. The researchers warn that if South Asian countries would, for example, increase rice exports without making more imports of other products possible, they could be faced with increased levels of undernourishment within their own borders and that a well-thought-out liberalisation is needed to avoid such collateral effects.

“Sadly enough, we see that in times of crisis, countries are inclined to adopt a protectionist stance. Since the start of the current coronavirus crisis, around ten countries have closed their borders for the export of important food crops,” says study lead author Charlotte Janssens, a guest researcher in the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Programme and a researcher at KU Leuven. “In the context of climate change, it is highly important that they avoid such protectionist behaviour and instead continue to maintain and utilise the international trade framework.” – Press release, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis