Consumers, particularly in the western world, now enjoying increased access to a variety of proteins, fats, fruits and vegetables, and year-round. However, this also leads to many countries relying on fewer import partners. This could elevate their exposure to future shocks in the food system. Photo: E. Brown/Flickr

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FOOD TRADE

Global food system vulnerable from reliance on fewer exporting countries

The world is enjoying a richer diet but most countries increasingly depend on food imports. That should worry many of them

Story highlights

  • Between 1987 and 2013, food supply diversity increased significantly for most of the world's population
  • Increased reliance on trade decreases resilience as more people across the world become exposed to ‘shocks’ like price spikes, export bans, or interruptions induced by climate change
  • Greece, Spain and Italy are bucking the trend with higher diversity of production and supply, and number of import partners

ALL EGGS IN ONE BASKET: Trade and globalization have been increasing rapidly for decades. That certainly includes food trade, with consumers, particularly in the western world, now enjoying increased access to a variety of proteins, fats, fruits and vegetables, and year-round. It makes for a varied and nutritious diet but also creates a complacency that all food is always available.

In a collaboration with Aalto University, Swedish Agricultural University and Stanford University, centre researchers Miina Porkka, Cibele Queiroz and Max Troell have made a global scale assessment of food trade networks and nutritional diversity. Their work has been published in the journal Global Food Security

The results indicate that, between 1987 and 2013, food supply diversity increased significantly for most of the world's population. However, dependency on imports also increased, with many countries relying on fewer import partners.

This could have significant consequences.

It is alarming that in many countries the studied resilience aspects systematically declined, elevating their exposure to future shocks in the food system.

Matti Kummu, lead author

Trade as a buffer or a cause for shocks

In their assessment, the authors found that Australia, Brazil, Canada, US, Kazakhstan and Argentina (in no particular order) that stand out with regards to export on protein sources and kcal. For fruits and vegetables, Spain and South Africa dominate.

An increased reliance on trade decreases resilience as more people across the world become exposed to ‘shocks’ like price spikes, export bans, or interruptions induced by climate change.

On the other hand, by spreading their imports across many trade partners, countries can buffer against shocks, both domestic and those experienced in exporting countries.

From the analysis the authors were able to identify countries with the most and the least resilience when it comes to trade on dietary energy, protein, fats, vegetables and fruit. Significant decreases in resilience indicators were found in countries ranging from Afghanistan to the US, although the latter is in a better situation to deal with any shocks.

Says co-author Miina Porkka: “Our findings highlight the interconnected trade-offs between trade-related aspects of food system resilience, and provide important information for global actors, as well as national policy makers.”

Link to publication

Food production (A–F) and food supply diversity (G–L) for years 1987–1989 and 2011–2013 as well as the change between these time steps calculated based on a linear regression model. Click on illustration to access scientific article.

Methodology

The researchers used food balance and trade data by the FAO to construct four indicators that capture trade-related aspects of national food supply over the past three decades: diversity of food production of different commodities, diversity of food supply of different commodities from both local and imported sources, independency of food supply from imports, and connectivity given by the number of major trade partners. These indicators represent two basic principles of a resilient system: maintaining diversity and redundancy, and managing connectivity.

Diversity allows systems to compensate for the loss or failure of some components with other functionally redundant components. Well-connected systems can overcome and recover from local disturbances faster by “importing” sources of resilience from elsewhere, but on the other hand, high dependency on imported sources of resilience exposes systems to the spread of external disturbances.

The four indicators were calculated for four nutritional components: dietary energy (kcal), protein (g), fat (g), and quantity of vegetables & fruits (g). These components provide different nutritional functions and are the basic pillars of WHO diet recommendations.

Link to publication

Citation

Kummu, M., Kinnunen, P., Lehikoinen, E., Porkka, M., Queiroz, C., Röös, E., Troell, M., Weil. C. 2020. Interplay of trade and food system resilience: Gains on supply diversity over time at the cost of trade independency. Global Food Security, Volume 24, March 2020, 100360

Link to publication

Miina Porkka is a postdoctoral researcher whose research explorers the interactions between freshwater and human societies

Cibele Queiroz focuses on food landscapes, the management of ecosystem services and biodiversity, and their resilience over time.

Max Troell is a system ecologist mainly working with environmental problems associated with aquaculture.

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