The perilous dependence on cheap food imports for food security

A different path forward
13 October 2011

The free market approach to food security has depended too heavily on an unsustainable system of cheap food imports and high fossil-fuel consumption. It's time to counter this by supporting environmentally efficient small farms, and increasing investment in agro-ecological research.


Decades of heavy debt service, structural adjustment, deepening global market integration, and the disciplines of the World Trade Organization reconstituted the nature of food security across much of the Global South. Debt and adjustment dramatically reduced the role of the state in agriculture, forcing extensive cuts to government expenditures on research capacity, extension services, small farm oriented credit, and rural and domestic marketing infrastructure, while diffusing energy for state-led redistributive land reforms and frequently replacing it with market-led land reforms, which have tended to have highly uneven outcomes. At the same time, increased agro-export production was promoted in order to maximize foreign exchange earnings, and domestic markets were liberalized, first bilaterally through adjustment and next multilaterally through the WTO. This approach has been characterized as the ‘free market approach to food security’, with the basic promise being that increased foreign exchange would enhance a country’s capacity to access the bounty of global food markets, bringing lower prices and more stable supplies.

However, for many countries of the Global South, the net long-term result has been deepening dependence upon cheap food imports, while agro-export earnings of tropical commodities have been subject to protracted declines in terms of trade. Rising food imports have served to erode the viability of many small farm livelihoods, commoditize food security, and foster unsustainable levels of urbanization. The great vulnerability laden in this course was partially masked as long as cheap industrial surpluses flowed, but has been increasingly exposed amidst the dramatic volatility in world food markets since 2006, as the human costs have centred on low income, net food importing developing countries and the poor within them, from small farms to favelas.

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Tony Weis is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, and the author of the book The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming (Zed Books, 2007).

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