Okonjo-Iweala: Trade has central role in addressing food security challenges


Record food prices and a worsening food security context have given new urgency to the role of trade in addressing the challenges we face today, Director-General Okonjo-Iweala said at a seminar on food security organized by the WTO on 26 April. In her opening remarks, she said the event provided an opportunity to deepen understanding of the issues at stake and to help members take concrete steps forward so that trade can contribute to the attainment of food security around the world.

DG Okonjo-Iweala stressed that trade and food security has long been a critical issue on the WTO agenda but has now “shot to the top of the global policy agenda” due to the impact of the Ukraine conflict, especially in countries dependent on food exports from Ukraine and Russia. The high-level participation at the seminar was testimony to the importance the international community attaches to this issue, she said.

Russia and Ukraine together account for more than one-quarter of all traded wheat, and around three-quarters of world exports of crude sunflower oil, said the DG. In addition, Russia accounts for nearly one-tenth of fuel exports and, together with Belarus, one-fifth of the world supply of fertilizer.

She emphasized that households in Africa and the Middle East are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in these supplies: “35 countries in Africa import food and 22 import fertilizer from Russia, Ukraine, or both countries.” This could exacerbate the hunger already faced by millions of people around the world. The current spike in food prices comes on top of challenges due to the pandemic, economic downturns, climate-related shocks and conflict, she noted.

DG Okonjo-Iweala underscored the central role that trade can play in addressing food insecurity, including improving availability and access to food, helping to meet demand for more diverse and nutritious food, and improving the predictability and stability of global food markets for producers and consumers. She also highlighted that as a partner of the newly established United Nations Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance, the WTO is supporting the call to keep markets open and avoid unjustified export restrictions.

The DG emphasized that trade negotiators are very conscious of the need to improve food security as they prepare for the upcoming 12th Ministerial Conference, which is due to begin on 12 June.

In the panel discussions, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) listed the factors causing food insecurity – such as low productivity and efficiency, climate change and economic slowdown – and mapped the scale and depth of the problem worldwide. FAO data shows that between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced chronic hunger in 2020.

 It predicted that despite the UN Sustainable Development Goal zero hunger target, “around 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030, including tens of millions linked to possible lasting effects of the pandemic. And this is not yet taking into account the impact of the war in Ukraine.” FAO stressed: “Beyond hunger, nearly one in three people in the world were affected by moderate or severe food insecurity in 2020.”

In the face of unprecedented challenges, FAO suggested several ways to build more resilient agri-food systems, including tackling poverty and inequality, and enhancing humanitarian efforts and peace building in conflict areas. Other organizations participating in this panel included the African Development Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Several participants highlighted trade’s contribution to addressing hunger, food insecurity and wider nutrition challenges, emphasizing the need for all countries to assess the long-term impact of their policy instruments, such as export restrictions, to “avoid policy responses that can jeopardise food security”.

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) shared its concerns over the global repercussions of the Ukraine crisis on the most vulnerable groups. It estimated that 145 million people will need food aid in 2022, 17 million more than in 2021. Soaring food prices and high transportation fees have increased WFP’s operational costs by 44%, it said.

WFP highlighted the importance of keeping trade flowing and minimising disruptions to global supply chains, including by removing export restrictions and various taxes and duties on WFP food purchases. It welcomed the joint statement signed by over 80 WTO members  pledging not to impose export restrictions on food purchases bound for WFP. It urged more members to support this commitment at the upcoming 12th Ministerial Conference.

Other participants in this panel included the International Grains Council, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture and the International Food Policy Research Institute.