Food Supply and The Global Food Market
FOOD SUPPLY AND THE GLOBAL FOOD MARKET
FOOD SUPPLY AND THE GLOBAL FOOD MARKET. Worldwide, the food supply available to people depends on a variety of environmental, technical, and sociopolitical factors, the relative importance of which have varied considerably in time as well as geographically. Environmental factors have governed food production and availability throughout history, and this remains so for many societies. However, in a world where food is abundant as never before, food supply is extremely vulnerable to economic and political interests, as well as technical factors, such as transportation and communications.
Food Supply through the Ages
Before the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals (c. 10,000 B.C.E.), hunting, fishing, and gathering provided enough food for small groups of people such as bands of wanderers. Along with agriculture came a sedentary way of life, and self-sufficient agricultural settlements appeared in every region of the world. In this type of environment, food supply was direct and immediate. Careful management of produce ensured the survival of every household member until the next harvest. Except for times of warfare or environmental calamities, the balance between food demand and food supply remained fairly stable. Though hunting and gathering societies are almost extinct today, agricultural villages still endure in many parts of the world.
As some of these villages grew into towns, however, things began to change. Societies became more complex as certain groups of people ceased to be directly involved in the production of food. Food supply and distribution became dependent on an increasingly complex set of relations among groups of different professions and ranks. Surplus food (mainly grains) was traded with neighboring settlements. Concentrated in a few hands, food became a means to political power.
The growth of empires is associated with the emergence of a professional specialist, the merchant, who ventured into new territories exchanging food and other goods across borders, often between far-off places. Food began to be regarded as a commodity subject to the rationale of profit, and it eventually became the responsibility of the state to ensure an adequate food supply for its citizens.
The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century was also an agricultural revolution that dramatically changed the way food was to be produced, distributed, and used in most of the world. Farming, fishing, and other food-production activities became large-scale enterprises, organized according to the principles of maximum productivity and maximum profit. Capital-intensive agriculture produced surpluses of a magnitude never before possible. The modernization of transport and communications, and the emergence of food-processing and food-packaging industries, made it possible to extend food trade on a global scale. In urban centers, supermarkets can offer not only frozen and packaged food, but also fresh produce year-round from all over the world. For some this increased food supply has created a sense of plenty, albeit a localized and exclusive one.
Food Supply as a Political Weapon
In the twentieth century, food supply came under the rules of a new political and economic order. Large food stocks have proved to be one of the main geopolitical assets of rich nations. Most affluent countries are or have been large exporters of food, and they control the global food market to their advantage. Food prices are set at the major stock exchange institutions in North America, Europe, and Japan. In competing for the hegemony of the global food market, the United States, the world's main food exporter, has been engaged in "food wars" with Japan and the European Union. International organizations, such as the recently formed WTO (World Trade Organization), have been created to defuse these conflicts, as well as to balance the "market distortions" that affect less powerful nations.
The global food market is dominated by the most affluent countries, which, on average, have controlled almost 70 percent of the total value of imports and over 62 percent of the total value of exports of all agricultural products in the world since 1961 (see Table 1). During the last quarter of the twentieth century, these countries have been reducing the value of their imports while expanding the value of their exports. Food imports by these countries typically concentrate on specialized agricultural items, such as tropical fruits and selected vegetables, as well as coffee, tobacco, sugar, and tea, none of which is a staple in its place of origin. In order to meet the domestic demand for staples, many of the exporting countries of such products have to import large quantities of basic staples in exchange. From 1961 to 2000, the countries of Africa and Latin America increased more than eight times their imports of cereals, those of Asia more than four times, and those of Oceania more than five times.
|Main importers and exporters of total agricultural products, 1961–2000|
|(Value of imports/exports in US$1,000)|
|United States of America||3,836,796||6,301,029||18,410,350||27,088,094||44,949,426||20,117,139|
|United Arab Emirates||3,752||31,980||1,077,403||1,692,884||18,705,047||4,302,213|
|China, Hong Kong SAR||349,333||671,188||3,161,775||6,821,872||8,485,711||3,897,976|
|Korea, Republic of||87,280||438,935||3,303,414||6,459,074||8,297,395||3,717,220|
|% of world total||71||71||67||72||65||68|
|United States of America||5,187,350||7,507,566||42,921,186||45,210,987||56,479,900||31,461,398|
|% of world total||53||57||67||72||70||69|
|*Addition of data for Belgium and Luxembourg|
|source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOSTAT, on-line http://www.fao.org) May 2002.|
Since the end of World War II, the global supply of cereals, the basic staples for most of humanity, has largely depended on the production and export capacity of some fifteen countries. In 1999, major cereal exporters held close to one-half of global cereal stocks (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2002; hereafter FAO). In the year 2000, the four largest cereal exporters, the United States, France, Canada, and Australia, produced over 495 million metric tons of cereals (wheat, maize, rice, sorghum, oats, and others), which amounted to 24 percent of the total world production, and exported 164.8 million metric tons of cereals, 61 percent of the total world exports of cereals for that year. However, in past decades this proportion had been much larger, reaching as much as 78 percent in 1980 (see Table 2).
In addition to trade, food transfers between main producers and main consumers include "food aid." Between 1970 and 2000, more than 336 million metric tons of cereals were shipped as food aid to countries in need.
|Main cereal exporters, 1961–2000 (Qty., Mt)|
|United States of America||31,796,032||40,406,383||112,905,797||92,615,939||87,358,248|
|% of world total||68||65||78||71||61|
|% of world total||90||91||94||92||87|
|*Addition of data for Belgium and Luxembourg|
|source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOSTAT, online http://www.fao.org), May 2002.|
Over half of these shipments came from the United States alone. In 1990, the United States donated 7.2 million metric tons of cereals, 43.3 percent of which went to African countries, 21 percent to Latin American countries, and another 21 percent to countries in Asia. Despite its humanitarian character, food aid can also be used to the advantage of food donors through the conditions that may be attached to shipments and the adverse effects that these shipments may have on the domestic markets of the recipient countries (Mittal, 2002).
Food power has been used directly to pressure nations for a desired change of policy. In the second half of the twentieth century, food sanctions were applied against a handful of countries for a variety of purposes. For example, the United States embargoed a number of nations including Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Sudan, impeding or severely restricting food trade between the United States and those countries.
Food Supply in the Twenty-First Century
In the twenty-first century, the food supply is conditioned by the rules of the global food market and global geopolitics, which affect decisions concerning the production and distribution of food at the national and local levels. The effective demand (purchasing power) of high-income buyers has precedence over the real demand of the nutritional needs of populations. For most people on earth, access to food depends on access to money and, for some, on access to charity, and the expansion of agribusiness to the countries of the so-called Third World has seriously affected these countries' self-sufficiency in food. Food trade and food markets have become subject to rules over which the majority of farmers have no control, and this has serious implications for the livelihoods of entire populations.
In the large urban centers of the world, the regular supply of fresh produce concentrates in the expensive supermarkets of wealthy neighborhoods, while a large proportion of the population can go without enough to eat. Lack of access to food leads to undernourishment, a problem that affects more than 800 million people in the world, including many living in the rich, food-exporting countries.
Food supply has become subject to a complex set of interests that governments are finding increasingly more difficult to mediate. Cereal stocks at the global level seem to have begun a diminishing trend due to an overall decline in production and an overall increase in utilization. Estimates for the year 2000 indicated an expected 4 million tons, down from the opening levels (FAO, 2000).
Though the per capita supply of cereals has been growing steadily since 1961 in most regions of the world, food shortages afflict a large number of countries. In 2002, the FAO reported that a state of emergency existed in the food-supply systems of as many as thirty-four countries on four continents, including Europe (FAO/ GIEWS, 2000). One of the factors that adversely affects real food supply per capita in many countries is the utilization of cereals as animal feed, which in 1999 amounted to 35.1 percent of total world cereal stocks (Faostat, World Food Balance Sheet, May 2002). Unless local small-scale production for self-consumption is protected and encouraged, continuous and adequate access to food cannot be guaranteed for the rural populations of the world. With rural-urban migration on the rise almost everywhere, the majority of populations in the world will soon be concentrated in cities, contributing to the expansion of already impoverished slums.
A series of fundamental changes in global trade and the international financial system is in order if food security for all is ever to be attained. In this regard, the efforts of civil organizations fighting for fair trade and a more egalitarian world society are crucial.
See also Food Supply, Food Shortages; Political Economy.
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Luis L. Esparza Serra