The year 2017 was marked by increasing uncertainty amid mixed signs of progress. The world enjoyed a strong economic recovery, but global hunger increased as conflicts, famine, and refugee crises persisted. With the withdrawal of the United States from major international agreements, Britain’s “Brexit,” and rising anti-immigration rhetoric in many countries, the world began to step away from decades of global integration that have yielded unprecedented reductions in poverty and malnutrition. 

The rise of isolationism and protectionism, visible in the US withdrawal from multilateral trade and climate agreements, the UK’s “Brexit” from the EU, and growing anti-immigration rhetoric in developed countries, threatens to slow progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals and improved food security and nutrition, according to the 2018 Global Food Policy Report released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) few days ago.

Although backlash against globalization has been mostly portrayed as a phenomenon affecting the developed world, the report highlights how rolling back global integration could harm the livelihoods of millions of poor people in the developing world as well. The report is the latest in an annual analysis of developments in food policy around the developing world, based on the most recent available evidence.

“Policies that encouraged globalization through more open trade, migration, and knowledge sharing have been critical to recent unprecedented reductions in hunger and poverty,” added Fan. “Enacting policies to leverage the benefits of globalization while minimizing the risks that fuel antiglobalism will be critical to meet the Sustainable Development Goals to end hunger and poverty by 2030.”

The report scrutinizes the impact developed-country farm support has on farmers in developing countries and global food security. Farm support policies from these wealthy nations—particularly high tariffs and support prices—depress global prices, forcing poor farmers in less wealthy countries to compete without similar levels of support.

“The real losers from policies that protect farmers at the expense of distorting international prices are low-income farmers in poor developing countries, who suffer lower prices and greater rural poverty. The long-term effects of developed-country farm subsidies on developing countries are particularly pernicious: reducing incentives for production with adverse consequences for food security, nutrition and rural development,” said Joseph Glauber, senior researcher at IFPRI, and former chief economist for the United States Department of Agriculture.

When international trade is open, however, authors of the report argue it improves food security. “Trade has become a symbol of the failures of globalization, but it has been essential for many of our greatest achievements in improving livelihoods across the globe in recent decades,” said David Laborde, senior researcher at IFPRI and co-author of the report chapter on trade.

Facilitated by global agreements, trade has lowered the average cost of food worldwide and expanded access to more and more diversified foods. Trade barriers, on the contrary, lead to high food prices in land-scarce countries, depressed food prices in land-abundant countries and lower real income in both. While the authors recognize the potential risks associated with trade opening—including rising inequality, health impacts, increased energy use, and environmental damage—they argue these are better addressed with policies that directly target the source of the problem, rather than by hampering trade.

On the rising anti-immigration rhetoric, researchers debunk the populist notions that immigration disrupts local labour markets or increases crime, and present evidence suggesting voluntary migration is associated with greater food security for the migrants, and for their families that remain behind, as well as economic and fiscal benefits for the receiving country.

“Politically motivated arguments that immigrants decrease wages, increase crime, or impose financial burdens on receiving countries are not supported by the evidence from research on migration,” said Alan de Brauw, senior researcher at IFPRI and co-author of the report chapter on migration.

To strengthen governance of our global food system, chapter author Joachim von Braun recommends establishing an International Panel on Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture—modeled on the International Panel on Climate Change. “An International Panel on Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture would mobilize the related large global research community to provide credible science-based assessments and guidance for more evidence-based political decision-making,” said von Braun, director of the Center for Development Research.

This year’s report also features chapters on how global private investments in agriculture can help the world meet the Zero Hunger goal; the role of open access data in improving livelihoods; as well as updated datasets on agricultural investment, public expenditures, and more.

The report emphasizes that despite daunting challenges the world currently faces, improving food systems provides a path to address them within the sustainability parameters of the planet.

“Food systems have the unique potential to fix many of our most pressing global problems, but must be transformed into sustainable systems that support healthy diets for all,” said Fan.

Africa’s sustained economic growth since the early 2000s has been underpinned, in part, by globalization through increased investments, including capital inflows, and favourableble commodity prices that enabled strong export growth. The improved growth performance resulted in declines in poverty, hunger, and malnutrition and enabled a middle class to flourish. However, Africa south of the Sahara still has a high poverty rate and a number of poor compared to the other regions of the world. Furthermore, the continent’s dependence on exports of primary commodities leaves it vulnerable to volatile global markets, as witnessed in 2016 when the sharp decline in commodity prices slowed economic growth. Meanwhile, conflicts and increased climate variability continue to threaten food security and nutrition in Africa. In addition, high poverty levels and conflict have forced many Africans to illegally migrate abroad, especially to Europe, under treacherous conditions.

In the face of the headwinds of anti-globalism, African countries should focus on implementing broad-based policy reforms that will allow their economies to thrive in a competitive global environment, generate employment, and build resilient food systems and livelihoods. Policy reforms should also promote trade openness, export diversification, and foreign direct investment (FDI) to keep these countries on a path of sustained and inclusive growth and food security.