More free trade will not solve the food crisis

WTO has lost the trust of the people, and all governments must keep agricultural matters out of free trade agreements.

World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva
A logo is pictured on the headquarters of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland, June 2, 2020. [Denis Balibouse/Reuters]

From June 13 to 15, the World Trade Organization (WTO) will hold its 12th Ministerial Conference. The global food crisis will take centre stage in discussions. Once again, G7 political leaders and wealthy nations are cheering for more free trade as a solution to ensure global food security. Small-scale food producers and global peasant movements, however, are warning that it is the wrong recipe.

Decades of rampant globalisation and expansion of free trade have decimated local economies, increased rural poverty, generated agrarian conflicts, spurred migration, and worsened hunger and inequality. It is time for a radical shift towards guaranteeing food sovereignty everywhere.

Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the war against Ukraine have created massive disruptions in international agricultural markets and global food systems. The prices of farm inputs and some primary food and agricultural commodities have skyrocketed. Rising food inflation in countries worldwide is threatening to push more people into hunger. Several import-dependent countries are now struggling to import the food needed to feed their people.

Transnational agribusiness corporations seem keen to milk the crisis. They prefer to hoard and export rather than fulfil domestic demand, sometimes forcing national governments to impose export bans to tame rising domestic prices. A recent investigation has found that excessive speculation by investment firms and funds in the commodities markets has contributed to the price spike.

In short, the global food system, sustained by free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties, is failing once again in the face of significant disruptions. Yet all we hear is chorus calls from wealthy nations for more free trade. It is déjà vu. In 2008, during the global food crisis, international trade was touted as the magic pill to solve food insecurity worldwide. That has just proven to be a tale that could cost the lives of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Real solutions were always on the horizon.

For nearly a quarter of a century, La Via Campesina, the global peasant movement, has been advocating that national public policies built on the principles of food sovereignty can build stable, re-localised food systems. Such local efforts can weather the storm of massive disruptions that we see today. Instead of globalising food trade through WTO and other free trade agreements, countries should have the right to protect and promote local food production, regulate agricultural markets, and develop public stockpiling.

Yet, since its 2013 Ministerial Conference in Bali, the WTO has been dragging its feet on finding a permanent solution to public stockholding for food security purposes. A proposal tabled by the G-33 grouping of WTO has been in deep freeze since 2013, despite a majority of the developing nations supporting it.

Middle and low-income countries have also been asking for a special safeguard mechanism (SSM) to prevent food dumping, allowing them to raise import tariffs when faced with an import surge. Yet, no solution seems to be in sight, even as the Agreement on Agriculture by the WTO allows a total of 39 countries (17 developed and just 22 developing countries) to use a special safeguard. International trade rules around food imports also force middle and low-income countries to remain obligated to a free-market trading system, disallow any policy protecting the local economies, and sometimes even force them to reformulate their national laws.

Why do we need a global institution like WTO that only bats for the wealthy and the powerful? The world cannot wait anymore for the WTO to reform itself and find solutions that matter. West Africa faces its worst food crisis in 10 years, with over 27 million people suffering from hunger. The prevalence of hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean now stands at 9.1 percent, the highest it has been in the last 15 years. The social unrest we witness in Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere demands urgent attention from the global society.

There are concrete steps that can lay the pathway to food sovereignty.

All existing WTO rules that prevent countries from developing public food stockholding systems and supporting their local farmers should be immediately suspended. The speculation on agricultural commodities should be forbidden, and exporting-importing countries should conduct transparent negotiations to ensure accessible prices for import-dependent countries. The use of agricultural products to produce agrofuels should be prohibited. The public debt of the most vulnerable countries should be abolished.

In the longer term, stabilising the global food system requires a significant change in food governance and politics. Small-scale food producers should be at the heart of global food governance, not agribusiness corporations. Rights such as those stated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants should be implemented as a legally binding instrument. Peasant agroecology and agrarian reform must become the essential means of sustainable food production while coping with environmental challenges.

WTO has lost the trust of the people, and all governments must keep agricultural matters out of free trade agreements. The time has come to build an alternative international framework for trade and agricultural policies based on the principles of food sovereignty. Several governments, faced with a significant social crisis at home, might be willing to take these radical steps towards food sovereignty. They will face massive resistance from wealthy nations and exporting powers unwilling to lose the golden goose. Given the seriousness of the situation, significant battles are to be witnessed in this WTO ministerial meeting. We remain alert.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.