rishi sunak Global Food Security Summit - source Simon Walker  No 10 Downing Street

Source: Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

This week the UK hosted its first Global Food Security Summit, an event the government said would “tackle the causes of food insecurity and malnutrition”.

Important discussions were had on malnutrition, technology and climate, but discussions rarely touched on the role that trade rules play in determining food security. This matters. Not only do trade rules govern the movement of agricultural goods between countries, they also restrict some of the measures governments can take to support sustainable agriculture and shore up food security within their own borders.

Signed by members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) has a huge influence on how the global agri-food system operates. The AoA governs what taxes can be placed on food goods being imported or exported; it dictates how much financial support a country can give to its farmers and outlines rules on countries storing, procuring, and distributing food to their populations.

However, many would argue the rules of the AoA haven’t always been applied fairly. The agreement has resulted in unfair conditions for many countries in the global south by allowing richer countries to support their farming sectors financially and protect their own food supply, while forcing many poorer countries to reduce their support for their own farming sectors and food security.

The result is a system where richer countries and their agri-food corporations have profited, while smallholder farmers in the global south have been sidelined. But the AoA isn’t the only problem. Right now, there are a number of other trade rules that undermine the food system.

Take trade and investment agreements between countries and regions as an example. Through many of these legally binding agreements, richer countries are pushing some countries in Africa and Latin America to introduce rules that restrict farmers’ rights to save, exchange and use indigenous seeds.

These rules can increase the likelihood of farmer debt, as they are pushed into buying expensive corporate seeds. They can also restrict the use of local indigenous varieties of crop, which can be better suited to local conditions and more resilient to pests, diseases, and extreme weather events. The UK currently has 21 trade and investment agreements that contain these requirements.

veg supplier supply chain fresh

Trade and investment agreements also often contain clauses on the trade in digital services. In the agri-food supply chain, this could mean anything from harvesting and selling on-farm data (e.g. soil health) across borders, to the exchange of information on consumer demand in food goods. But there are significant concerns about who profits from and who owns the rights to these digital services and products, and what implications corporate ownership might have on smallholder livelihoods.

Finally, many – often richer – countries are introducing trade-related measures to tackle human rights abuses in supply chains. This is opening up a raft of other debates around how and where trade rules are used to stop malpractice within food supply chains. More research and discussion is needed to address the ways these measures could impact smallholder farmers and indeed food security in the global south in particular.

As our latest report shows, getting trade rules right is essential not only in ensuring smallholder farmers can farm sustainably, and get a fair deal, but in ensuring people the world over have access to safe and nutritious food.

The UK should play its role in designing trade rules – both in free trade agreements and at the WTO – that will help to combat world hunger, tackle the climate crisis and support decent livelihoods for smallholder farmers.