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A New Perspective on Global Food Trade

Posted February 16, 2015

A study published last week in the journal BioScience by a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment proposes to extend the way global food trade is viewed to include nutritional value and resource consumption alongside more conventional measures of trade’s value.

“Trade is usually described in terms of the value or weight of the goods being exchanged,” said study lead Graham MacDonald, a research scholar with the Institute’s Global Landscapes Initiative. “But these don’t necessarily capture other important aspects of food production and distribution. Accounting for food’s nutritional value and the land and water resources needed to produce exports offers a more holistic view of how trade affects global food security and the environment.”

In order to juxtapose these perspectives, researchers compiled millions of global food trade statistics for the 2000s from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to calculate the monetary value, calories, land use and irrigation water consumption associated with 390 traded food commodities derived from 139 crops and 10 domesticated animals. Traded goods were tracked back to which nations actually grew the underlying crops using cross-national data on agricultural production.

Among the findings of the study, was that Over 70% of the global trade according to all metrics is concentrated in only 20 exporting and 33 importing countries. Whether a country is a net importer or net exporter varied, depending on the metric considered. For example, China exports apples and other fruits that are fairly high value, while it mostly imports land-intensive but much lower-value soybean. Likewise, Kenya exports high value tea and coffee, but imports food staples such as wheat grown on foreign cropland.

A handful of trade paths stood out as particularly prominent, especially the cropland area involved with soybean exports from the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina to China. “In other words, we identified really land-intensive and water-intensive ‘megatrades’ that disproportionately contribute to global trade,” MacDonald said. “Such trades are a reflection of highly specialized and export-oriented agricultural systems that manifested in rapid globalization.”

The study’s authors say their findings underscore the importance of choosing the right yardstick when analyzing the global trade network and raise new questions about what other metrics could be used to evaluate the broader implications of international supply chains or interdependencies among countries in terms of food and resources.