Researchers say free trade can help climate change hunger

Science Notes: Climate change will impact regions in different ways

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Researchers from KU Leuven, the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and RTI International investigated the effects of trade on hunger in the world as a result of climate change. They found that international trade can compensate for regional food shortages and reduce hunger, particularly when protectionist measures and other barriers to trade are eliminated.

Why it matters: More liberalized international trade can reduce the number of hungry people in the world.

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Climate change has consequences for agriculture worldwide, with clear differences between regions. Expectations are that sufficient food will remain available in the Northern hemisphere, but in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, falling crop yields may lead to higher food prices and a sharp rise in hunger. Further liberalization of world trade can relieve these regional differences:

“If regions like Europe and Latin America, for example, where wheat and corn thrive, increase their production and export food to regions under heavy pressure from global warming, food shortages can be reduced,” says doctoral researcher Charlotte Janssens. “It sounds quite obvious, but there are many barriers that complicate this free trade.”

The international research team, consisting of scientists from KU Leuven, IIASA and RTI International, among others, are making their recommendations based on 60 scenarios. They took into account different forms of trade policy, along with climate change varying from a two- to four-degree warming of the Earth. The horizon for each scenario was set at 2050.

“Under the current barriers to trade, the worst-case climate scenario of a 4 C warming will lead to an extra 55 million people enduring hunger compared to the situation without climate change. If vulnerable regions cannot increase their food imports, this effect will even rise to 73 million,” says Janssens.

Where barriers to trade are eliminated, only 20 million people will endure food shortages due to climate change. In the milder climate scenarios, an intensive liberalization of trade may even prevent more people from enduring hunger owing to climate change.

Yet a liberalization of international trade may also involve potential dangers.

“If South Asian countries would increase rice exports without making more imports of other products possible, they could be faced with increased food shortage within their own borders,” says Janssens. “A well thought-out liberalization is needed in order to be able to relieve food shortages properly.”

Professor Miet Maertens explains: “In the early 21st century, we saw a major liberalisation of the international market. This caused the average import tariffs on agricultural products in Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to drop by a third. Our research shows that this liberalization makes global food provision less vulnerable to climate change. We also see that further reduction and phasing-out of tariffs can intensify this positive effect.”

“Sadly enough, we see that in times of crisis, countries are inclined to adopt a protectionist stance. Since the start of the current corona crisis, around 10 countries are closing their borders for the export of important food crops,” says Janssens.

“In the context of climate change, it is highly important that they avoid such protectionist behaviour and instead continue to maintain and utilize the international trade framework.”

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