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Food Trade, Food Security and the SDGs: Aligning Reality with the Vision

Date: 22 Apr 2016

More than 700 million people in the developing world lack the food necessary for an active and healthy life. Food insecurity is a multi-faceted problem related not only to poverty, but also to international trade that contributes to determining what food is available where and at what price. For even if international markets for many foodstuffs are small in comparison to total production (and some foods are barely traded at all), the roughly 15% of agricultural production that does cross borders shapes domestic food systems profoundly, whether in China or Mali or the United States.

Improving the way food commodity markets function to limit extreme food price volatility is one of the targets included in SDG2, aimed at increasing food security as part of the ambitious new development agenda that UN member states signed up to in September 2015. The room for improvement is enormous.

The 2007-2008 world food price crisis generated political and economic instability and social unrest in countries around the world, increasing malnutrition and indebtedness, and deepening poverty and inequality. Agricultural commodity markets too are still dealing with the aftermath: the crisis raised important questions about whether international trade rules are fit for purpose. Indeed, although the importance of international trade for many facets of food security is generally accepted, the WTO, the body responsible for overseeing the rules governing food trade, is itself challenged by many civil society organizations, while the rules governing agricultural trade are challenged by a number of WTO member states and the experts who advise them.

So where does this leave us? There would seem to be some disconnect between the current global food trade architecture and the vision of the SDGs. In addition to SDG2, food security and food trade have implications for a number of other goals, including those related to economic growth; gender equality; reducing inequalities; sustainable production and consumption, combating climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss; and, not least, global partnerships.
  • Can countries create and enforce trade rules that respect other global commitments to sustainable and inclusive human well-being?
  • How can the international community rebuild confidence in international food markets and the rules that govern them?
  • How should governments reform multilateral trade rules to limit future risks to food security while ensuring everybody’s food needs are met in a sustainable way?

UNRISD Visiting Research Fellow Sophia Murphy will discuss these issues at an UNRISD Seminar.

Susan Mathews, Human Rights Officer (Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division) at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, will bring another perspective to the discussion of trade from a social development and human rights angle. She will explain why and how OHCHR is engaging on trade as a human rights issue, highlight some lessons learned from past experiences with human rights impact assessments of trade agreements, and describe current efforts to initiate a human rights impact assessment of the Continental Free Trade area agreement in Africa, focusing on agriculture, including food security and livelihoods, as well as employment.


Sophia Murphy, UNRISD Visiting Research Fellow; Senior Advisor, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy; and PhD candidate, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Canada

Susan Mathews, Human Rights Officer, Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)


Power Point Presentation: Food Trade, Food Security and the SDGs

Photo: CCAFS Nepal-18 by CIAT (Common Creatives via Flickr)