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Insights / Report

20 Sept 2019 / 4 min read

Delivering Sustainable Food and Land Use Systems: The Role of International Trade

80% of the world’s population is dependent on imports to meet their food and nutritional requirements. Our latest report explores how trade policies can promote healthier and more sustainable food and land use systems.

Containers sitting stacked at Qingdao Port in Shandong Province of China. Image: Han Jiajun/Visual China Group via Getty Images


International trade and trade policies play an ambiguous role in the current food system. With 80 per cent of the world’s population depending on imports to meet at least part of their food and nutritional requirements, trade has a unique function in offsetting imbalances between supply and demand. However, in the absence of effective regulatory frameworks or pricing frameworks that internalize environmental, social or health costs, trade can exacerbate and globalize challenges associated with food production and land use trends such as deforestation, land degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and the shift to unhealthy diets.

This overall increase in trade in agricultural products raises questions about the growing utilization of resources, such as water or soil nutrients, that are embedded in those products through production and processing. Trade itself also causes environmental impacts, starting with greenhouse gas emissions associated with transport and storage. If the environmental cost associated with production and trade is not reflected in the final price of goods, trade may exacerbate the depletion of resources or their unsustainable use.

This paper explores the role of trade in delivering more sustainable and healthier diets and recommends seven key trade policy options to promote this goal. It finds that there is an unprecedented need for new spaces for informal dialogue among actors, and ‘soft’ governance mechanisms to help rebuild consensus on the best ways forward. There is a need to condition the use of subsidies on their sustainability and/or health impacts along with implementation of trade facilitation initiatives for fruits and vegetables. A global food stamps programme and integrating the notion of sustainable food and inputs trade in the post-2020 biodiversity framework can also help to deliver more sustainable and healthier food and land use systems. Orientating the agricultural trade agenda around Sustainable Development Goals will also be key to deliver environmental and nutritional goals, with specific tools for addressing greenhouse gas emissions resulting from trade.

This paper has been produced with the generous support of the Food and Land Use Coalition’s (FOLU), to support their Global Report (2019), which provides research and analysis to help evidence the case for food and land use transformation.