What do trade wars mean for agricultural adaptation to and mitigation of climate change?

Jul 31, 2018


Andy Jarvis and Bruce Campbell (CCAFS)

The news is plastered with headlines on trade tariffs, and whilst the tariffs may have started on steel, they quickly moved to food items. The first 20 of the 106 products that China recently announced would be taxed are food or agriculture based, including not-so-insignificant products like soy, corn and wheat. Europe, Mexico and Canada have also added numerous food products to their lists. 
Molly Brown and colleagues, in their 2017 review, have argued that “if trade restrictions proliferate, double exposure to both a rapidly changing climate and volatile markets will likely jeopardize the food security of millions”. Scary stuff. Free, open trade, which allows nations to absorb climate shocks in their own countries by importing food products from elsewhere, should be considered an adaptation option. Trade effectively diversifies risk on a global scale. And for poor consumers who are most sensitive to food price spikes, it means less volatility.
But what about climate change mitigation? Tariffs could drive more local food systems, and amplify the voices calling for regionalizing the food system and reducing food miles. Prajal Pradhan and colleagues suggest that buying food sourced from nearer farms could reduce emissions from transport of food to urban areas by half or more.

Not so fast, though. Beware the myth that a product sourced locally is more sustainable than one grown on the other side of the planet and shipped. Avetisyan and colleagues (2014) find that reductions of emissions from transport of ruminant products are negated by changes in emissions resulting from the shift to local production. Diverting consumption to local goods only reduces global emissions when undertaken in regions where food is produced with very low emissions. Himics et al. (2018) recently completed a policy analysis of the impacts of trade liberalization in the EU on mitigation in the agriculture  sector. They found that trade liberalization produces a very minor reduction in EU-based emissions—as the EU shifts to importing food produced (less efficiently) elsewhere—but that gain is offset by increased emissions in other countries.
What can we conclude: is free trade good or bad for the food and climate system? As a science program that wants to have actionable research results, CCAFS hates the response “it depends”. It epitomizes the ultimate cop-out from actually answering a question, a trait that many scientists suffer from. But in this case it does indeed depend. Overall, from a climate perspective we favor as few trade barriers as possible, as trade is essential for climate adaptation in a world that is increasingly variable. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from food systems is crucial – but it should not be done through changing trade regulations.