Mises Wire

Protectionism Doesn’t Decrease “Food Insecurity”; It Increases It

Achieving food security is a priority of political parties regardless of ideology. Therefore, countries work assiduously to ensure that this project is accomplished. The proactive approach to tackling the issue is admirable, but in their pursuit of food security, some countries adopt counterproductive policies. The assumption that protectionism alleviates the risks of food security is still embraced by many policymakers when there is no correlation.

Such muddled thinking stems from a misunderstanding of what food security entails. If the goal of food security is to satisfy the nutritional requirements of the population, then the source of food is immaterial. Realistically, small countries constrained by geographical limitations achieve food security by importing. Singapore imports over 90 percent of its food, yet it remains an economic powerhouse. Contrary to propaganda, imports do not preclude economic growth, and exports are not an indication that an economy is booming. America recorded low growth rates in periods marked by export booms.

Resorting to protectionism aggravates economic and social problems when countries cannot produce efficiently. Without efficiency, there will not be a base for quality domestic production. Protectionism remains politically palatable because people are likely to equate import bans with support for local sectors; however, Africa’s lackluster performance exposes the fallacies of protectionism. Notwithstanding the use of trade barriers to promote local production, Africa still has failed to increase growth and exports.

Other lines of evidence indicate that rather than inhibiting food security, effective trade facilitation is a significant driver of food security in Africa. Better facilitation improves access to food by expediting imports to underserved populations. An outcome of this is that populations benefit from higher consumption levels and richer diets. Further, with the growing accessibility of food due to trade, rates of undernourishment will invariably decline. Though maligned, the literature has shown consistently that trade openness has a favorable impact on food security in Africa.

Moreover, these findings can be generalized to other regions, with global evaluations concurring that trade openness promotes food security. Scholars counter the propaganda of protectionism in an article published in Food Policy: “Our empirical results showed that trade openness does, on average, have a positive and statistically significant net impact on food security, which leads us to conclude that the benefits of trade outweigh the costs in terms of national food security.” Irrespective of the region, research shows that trade openness correlates with food security. In the European Union, this is also the case with the data suggesting that trade openness has “a significant net positive impact on the food security of European countries.”

Expecting protectionism to prevent food insecurity is implausible, but is there an environmental argument for buying locally? People assume that food transportation is responsible for a high percentage of emissions when the figure is quite minuscule. The type of food produced is a better predictor of emissions than where it was produced. Furthermore, the urban farming fad sparked by the environmental movement is equally impractical if managing emissions is the goal because except for a few crops, the carbon footprint of urban agriculture is six times greater than conventional agriculture.

Again, on a regional level, environmentalists purport that local consumption minimizes pollution by reducing the number of miles that food travels before reaching customers. However, researchers explain that this reasoning is incorrect: “Food from a larger, more distant farm might have to travel more miles, but the efficiencies gained from using a massive shipping container or a bigger truck to transport larger quantities might result in a much more favorable ratio of food per mile and actually reduce overall environmental impact.”

Folk beliefs reign supreme despite evidence to the contrary. But unfortunately, empty platitudes won’t conduce human flourishing; however, an authentic education in nonpolitical science and economics will surely do so.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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