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Publication | 2022

Environmental Sustainability of Food Systems, Global Food Security and Trade

The challenges faced by the global agri-food system are very complex. It must not only provide a sufficient nutritious food supply to meet growing demand, but it also requires managing environmental issues such as the impact of climate change, the pressure on natural resources, and the ecological sustainability of agricultural practices.

Climatic conditions and the endowment of natural resources required for the sustainable production of food and other agricultural products are not the same all over the planet. Some regions have clear agroecological advantages that allow the generation of more environmentally sustainable food production systems. For example, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa represent 50 percent of the land suitable for crop production globally (FAO, 2011).

As a necessary condition, it is important to adopt sustainable production practices and new technologies in all producing regions. Several publications argued that improved farming practices could positively affect the mentioned challenges, optimizing crop productivity, reducing GHGs emissions, and improving soil health. Normally, certification schemes are presented as an opportunity to promote sustainable practices; however, such standards must integrate local knowledge, culture, and innovative technology. Many of these schemes are designed in the importing countries (whether public or private) and do not take into account the differentials in the environmental impacts of these practices and technologies.

But given the unequal distribution of global resources capable of increasing the production of food in a sustainable way, trade must play a fundamental role in maximizing the efficient use of natural resources and reducing the environmental impact of the global agri-food system while increasing the availability of safety and nutritious food. However, the proliferation of schemes confuses producers and consumers, and due to their cost, they make compliance by small producers unfeasible, which reduces the incentives for the incorporation of better agricultural practices.

In the context of shortages in the fertilizer markets, agri-food trade can also reduce the pressure on agricultural soils. Thanks to their quality and the technologies applied, some regions will be able to respond in a better way and partially reduce the impacts of fertilizer markets on agricultural production.

At the same time, world trade of agricultural products continues to be seriously limited by trade policies which could be worsened by new measures implemented by some countries. The disparity and lack of scientific evidence for the imposition of border measures undermine the search for a global and efficient solution to this problem. In this context, trade policy and regulatory uncertainties reduce the incentives for producers to innovate and adopt new technologies. The conflict in Ukraine, its direct impact on the global supply of food and fertilizers, and the self-imposed export restrictions on agricultural products by some exporting countries add new concerns to achieving global food security. In this context of great uncertainty and pressure over global food security, existing import restrictions based on measures with a limited scientific basis will continue for the foreseeable future, at the same time trade and trade policy could not ignore the need to promote sustainable practices.

Therefore, the G20 could promote policies and measures to facilitate wider and easier access to validated information, promote sustainable food trade, demand scientific evidence in the application of measures, promote the harmonization of environmental sustainability standards in the agri-food systems, promote environmentally friendly technologies, and foster better farming practices in developing countries.