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What is the price of food self-sufficiency?

  • Date: 22 June 2020
  • Author: Jason Clay, SVP, Markets

Finding the right balance between food imports and domestic production will continue to be a challenge as COVID-19 disrupts supply chains and governments want to ensure that food will be available for their citizens. Trade is an essential part of any sustainable food system. There will be pandemics, droughts, and plagues of locusts in any given year, and unfortunately, like now, sometimes all in the same year. Trade helps the global food system fill in the cracks created by disruptive individual or multiple events, regardless of their origin, that may lead to localized rolling hunger across a landscape.

Unfortunately, countries are viewing their dependencies on food imports as a weakness in the wake of the current crisis. As a result, some governments (fortunately not too many and not the major exporters at this point) are restricting exports to ensure that they meet domestic needs. And as a consequence, other countries are pursuing self-sufficiency tactics in producing key foods through acts of monumental inefficiency disguised as agricultural innovation. One such program was the announcement by the UAE to grow rice in the desert.

It makes no sense to produce food in deserts where the necessary freshwater will be produced through fossil fuel-based desalinization programs at great GHG emission and financial costs. This strategy, at scale, would only ensure increased impacts from climate change, including a warmer world with more extreme weather. The irony, unfortunately, is that such strategies are not only going to produce very expensive food, but they are also doomed to exacerbate food's environmental footprint in the process, doing a disservice to the countries pursuing them as well as the rest of the world.

What countries can do and what they should do are not always the same. If we are to use technology and innovation to develop better, more sustainable food systems, then we at least need to make sure that the innovations do no harm.

The above is an excerpt from the Markets Institute Food Trends to Watch weekly newsletter containing analysis of emerging issues and commentary on recent news stories. Subscribe here.