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Does the WTO agreement on agriculture endanger food security in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Research Paper No. 2006/60
June 2006
Samuel K Gayi
United Nations University - World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER)


The use and application of the concept food security changed significantly with the seminal work of Sen (1981) on the causes of famine. The concept of entitlement (the means or the ability to access food) rather than aggregate food supplies, has since then been critical to the food security debate. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Bank introduced a dynamic perspective to this concept when they defined it as the access by all people at all times to nutritious food for an active and healthy life (FAO 1996c; World Bank 1986; see also Maxwell 1989; Drčze and Sen 1989; Sen 1981; and Schulthes 1994). And guided by this long-term framework, the World Bank (1986: 1) identifies two types of food insecurity: chronic and transitory.

In most developing countries, an important determinant of food security is food production. This is because most of the food-insecure people live in rural areas, earn a substantial share of their income from agriculture, and meet a significant share of their food requirements directly from their own food production (Salih 1994: 7; Maxwell 1996: 157; FAO 1996d: 3). Experiences of the famine that ravaged Africa in the mid-1980s have, however, exposed the dynamic and long-term notion entailed in the concept. The overriding concern of these famine victims was not only short-term access to food, but also the preservation of their assets, future livelihoods, and resilience to future shocks (Maxwell 1996: 157-8) primarily defined within the food production framework thereby emphasizing food self-sufficiency. On the other hand, the notion of food security for the non-rural (urban) households, who do not meet most of their food needs from own agricultural production, would generally entail not only the ability to command access to food, but also the availability of food supply in the long term. Central to this second interpretation is the notion of food availability in which food imports could play a significant role, as the major concern in this scenario is food selfreliance.

In a recent work, the FAO acknowledges that food security is a multifaceted concept, which incorporates the availability of adequate food supplies at the global and national levels as well as the principle of all people at all times having economic access to adequate and nutritious food (FAO 2003b: 25-9), thereby emphasizing the stability of both access to, and availability of, food.

The WTO Agreement on Agriculture (WTO-AoA), thus, clearly has implications for food security in poor countries of Africa, as it is aimed at attaining enhanced liberalization in international agricultural trade in three main policy areas: domestic support, export subsidies and border measures.2 Full implementation by developed countries of the three reduction commitments embodied in the WTO-AoA was expected to lead to increased variability in world food prices and world food price increases (Greenfield, de Nigris and Konandreas 1996; UNCTAD 1995b), although with significant regional differences (Africa, for example, was expected to increase its dependence on food imports [Greenfield, de Nigris and Konandreas 1996]).

The objective of the paper is to examine the state of food security in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) during the period 1990-2002 within the context of the WTO-AoA, and suggest a policy framework for improving food security in the region. It attempts to find answers to the following questions:

  1. Are there identifiable changes in the food security situation (and in domestic food production) in SSA countries in the post-Uruguay Round period?
  2. If so, could these be explained by the WTO Agreement on Agriculture?
  3. What domestic policy options under the Agreement are available for these countries to improve their food security situation?
  4. What improvements in the Agreement (within the framework of the on-going negotiations in agriculture) are likely to safeguard food security in net food importing/deficit countries in SSA?
The paper attempts to identify trends in the food security situation of SSA based on selected indicators: e.g., food import dependence; food import capacity; and daily energy supplies (or, calories per capita per day). These are supplemented by an analysis of selected indicators of nutritional wellbeing such as nutritional levels, under-five mortality rate and life expectancy. It also analyses the trend in food aid levels since 1990. Issues of intra-household food security, and the differential impact of the WTO-AoA on urban and rural households are not examined, as a serious analysis of these would require more disaggregated data.

It argues that considering the large rural farming population in those SSA countries with both static and dynamic comparative advantage in agriculture, it may be advisable for them to pursue policies towards food self-sufficiency as a means to attaining food security—at least until such a time when international trade in agriculture is fully integrated into the WTO disciplines—for four main reasons. First, the agricultural sector has large multiplier effects in these economies; second, it is a major source of livelihoods and income for the majority of the populations living in rural areas; third, agricultural development is the best means of preserving the livelihoods (entitlements) of the rural poor as well as developing the rural areas; and fourth, arguably, current agricultural production structures in SSA have evolved in response to agricultural protectionism in the north (i.e., distorted price signals) and might require a transitional period to (re)adjust liberalized trade in agriculture. Those SSA countries that lack comparative advantage in agriculture may want to aim for a food self-reliance strategy (i.e., meeting most of their food requirements through imports) to attain food security.

The study is structured as follows. Section 2 briefly discusses the concept of food security and the main elements of the WTO-AoA, while the relationship between trade liberalization and food security is examined in section 3. The food security situation in SSA in the post-Uruguay Round era is discussed in section 4. This is followed by an investigation into the permissible policy options contained in the WTO-AoA that could be utilized by SSA to attain its food security (or agricultural) objectives; and an exploration of improvements in the WTO-AoA (within the context of the Doha Round on the on-going negotiations in agriculture) likely to safeguard food security in SSA is given in section 5. The last section presents some concluding remarks.

  1. Office of the Special Coordinator for Africa, UNCTAD, Geneva; email:
  2. This has spawned a wide range of literature on the potential impact of the Agreement on the prices of food imports; and on the agricultural production. See, for example, Greenfield, de Nigris and Konandreas (1996); Hamilton and Whalley (1995); Konandreas and Greenfield (1996); Lindland (1997); and UNCTAD (1995a, 1995b; and FAO (1996a, 1996b, 1996c, 1996d, 1999, 2003a, 2003b).

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