Reduce Trade Roadblocks to Improve Food Security

04/13/2015 12:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

Conventional wisdom usually does not link trade to programs and policies that address poverty. We need to unpack this conventional wisdom and explore how improving key aspects of trade link to development, using as an example how U.S.-Africa trade policies can unlock Africa’s economic potential in agriculture.

More Africans are employed in agriculture than in any other sector, yet one quarter of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is chronically malnourished – and many of those are poor farmers. As Congress is negotiating trade-promotion authority and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), we have an opportunity to help bolster each African country’s capacity to alleviate malnutrition and foster economic growth through reducing broader restrictions, ensuring legal protections for the poor, mitigating the impact of a rise in global prices, and increasing investments.

A recent report on this topic from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs argues that cross-border trade can increase access to primary markets for farmers in previously isolated areas and allow for easier movement of food from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity. Policies should support cheap, fast, and safe movement of food across borders and increase agricultural exports. To encourage efficient and safe movement of food between countries, trade policies should remove harmful regulations and address gaps in infrastructure.

Currently, cross-border trade is hindered by roadblocks, excessive checkpoints, and fees that result in sluggish delivery of food to markets– risking damage to the harvest and increasing costs. Also, the majority of traders crossing borders are women. Long waits and excessive checkpoints often make them vulnerable to violence, sexual harassment, bribes, and confiscated goods. Increasing transparency and eliminating transportation restrictions can lead to less expensive and faster delivery of food while heightening the physical safety of many traders.

Critical gaps in infrastructure also restrict trade. Around 40 percent of Africans reside in landlocked countries or are far away from primary markets. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a 10-percent improvement in trade-related infrastructure such as paved roads, adequate energy supply, informational technology, and proper food storage facilities can increase the agricultural exports of developing countries by 30 percent.

Fair and just trade policies should ensure legal protections and reduce risk for the poor. Currently 90 percent of Africa’s rural land is undocumented. In order to ensure that farmers have legal rights to their own land, trade negotiations should find flexible ways to address land rights. Additionally, farmers should have access to crop insurance and other risk management tools to rebound from extreme weather events and other seasonal fluctuations.

Continued robust U.S. investment is critical, and passage of the Global Food Security Act of 2015 (H.R.1567) by Congress would help ensure U.S. leadership on these issues over the medium to long term. Currently, U.S. bilateral trade relations in the region primarily focus on the mining and manufacturing industries, with limited investments in the food sector. However, trade policies that boost U.S. investments in agriculture can expand the food sector’s future commercial growth. Trade policies alone cannot eradicate food insecurity, but they are necessary to effectively leverage each country’s different resources and capabilities to increase access to affordable and nutritious food.

Lindsay Coates is the executive vice president of InterAction, the largest U.S. alliance of nongovernmental organizations working on global poverty issues. Coates also serves on boards of the Episcopal Relief and Development as well as the World Bank Global Partnership for Social Accountability.