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Export Curbs by Just a Few Nations Could Make Global Food Prices Skyrocket

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted food supply chains across the world, endangering food security in many nations. So, too, locust infestations in Africa and Asia, droughts and labor shortages. And, the rising threats of climate change may piggyback onto such crises to multiply the havoc in coming years. Now, a study published in Nature Food shows that trade restrictions and stockpiling of supplies by just a few key countries could create global food price spikes and severe local and regional  food shortages during times of such threats. The study warns that the international community must work together to avoid such an outcome.

The researchers, from Columbia University’s Earth Institute and several other institutions, modeled future scenarios to investigate the potential impacts of export restrictions and local production shocks on supplies of rice, wheat and maize. These three crops form the backbone of global trade in staple crops, and are essential for food security across the globe.

The results show that restrictions by only three key exporters would increase the price of wheat by 70%, while maize and rice would rise by 40% and 60%, respectively. When combining this with potential local shocks such as those that have occurred in the last year due to the pandemic and other factors, prices of commodities could nearly double in many places.

vendors selling meat at a market
Export curbs combined with shocks to local or regional food production could cause prices to double in some places, says a recent study. Here, vendors at a market in the Vietnamese city of Dalat. (Kevin Krajick/Earth Institute)

Study coauthor Matti Kummu of Finland’s Aalto University said, “This is the result of an increasingly interconnected world, in which the majority of countries are dependent on imported food and, so, vulnerable to this kind of shock.”

Many low-income and lower-middle-income countries in Africa and Asia are highly dependent on imported commodities from richer nations that routinely produce surpluses, including Russia, the United States, and a number of European countries. The researchers say dependent countries could lose as much as a third of their supplies if curbs were put in place by just a handful of the exporting states. They would be unable to cover their deficits with domestic reserves, and would need alternative grain sources to survive, say the authors. Furthermore, they say, such shock scenarios may become commonplace, thanks in part to global warming.

“To help prevent devastation in the future, we need proactive strategies, like reducing food waste, changing the diet towards more plant-based protein sources, and increasing the yields sustainably particularly in the most vulnerable countries,” said Kummu.

But, “while sustainable design of agricultural systems is important, it must go hand in hand with efforts to improve political decisions and accountability,” says Michael J. Puma, a research scientist at the Earth Institute’s Center for Climate Systems Research who studies the global food trade.

Timely and coordinated international responses will be needed to minimize threats to countries that lack sufficient resources and purchasing power, he said. These solutions would ease pressure and help improve the self-sufficiency of low-income and middle-income countries, he said.

“It’s essential that humanitarian institutions strengthen their efforts to support democratic accountability around the world, which will ultimately help us to avoid severe food insecurity and famine,” added Puma.

Adapted from a press release by Aalto University.

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