The new geopolitics of international agricultural trade


What do the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have in common? Undoubtedly, they have a concern with ensuring food safety. This was one of the findings of a mission carried out by the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA) to these countries. For three weeks, it was possible to learn about the business environment and the reality of these places, which have very different income levels, population density, and geography.

For those who live in Brazil, it is difficult to figure out what it means to live in a country made up of  17.5 thousand  islands. Indonesia   is   the   largest archipelago in the world and its fourth most populous country, with 278 million inhabitants. With   an   economy   mainly   based   on   the   industrial   and   mining sectors, nowadays Indonesia is deploying a series of measures to attract investment and develop strategic sectors such as automotive batteries.

Of the five countries visited, four are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia. This bloc formed by ten countries occupies the fifth position in the ranking of the world’s largest economies.  All  four  countries have  goals to increase  local agricultural   production to reduce — at least   partially — dependence on food imports. For example, Malaysia produces only 27% of the beef consumed domestically. The goal is to reach 50% by 2030. On the other hand, the Philippines imports 93% of all the garlic the country consumes.

The interest of these countries goes beyond the trade expansion with Brazil.   Attracting Brazilian agricultural companies to set up locally and enhancing technical cooperation for the transfer of production technology are priorities on the bilateral agenda. In terms of food security and economic growth, these countries understand that it is more advantageous to produce locally instead of import, especially in the current scenario of post-pandemic and geopolitical instability.

To achieve this goal, governments offer  several benefits and even compete with each other, while presenting indicators that show their countries’ comparative advantages. An outstanding example of the Brazilian presence abroad is BRF’s operation in the UAE. Launched in 2014, the unit is the largest facility for processing poultry meat in the Middle East.

The expansion of Brazilian agribusiness’ presence in such distant and different markets follows the tendencies of global agricultural trade, which has been growing over the years—however in a heterogeneous way, depending on the region, with emphasis on the great increase in agricultural imports from countries in Asia   and the Middle East. Between   2002   and   2021, global agricultural imports grew by almost 300%, with European purchases increasing by 178% and those from ASEAN countries by 496%.

This reconfiguration of trade geopolitics and world agricultural production is a recent movement, which often has little weight in international negotiations on norms and public policies relevant to the sector. The international debate on food systems  must consider  this   change in the global scenario and the differences amongst   countries, whether in terms of   economic  and social development, or even geographical aspects.

This was the message that Brazil and CNA took to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at an event held in early October, at the organization’s headquarters. The discussion focused on the need to increase the resilience, productivity, and environmental sustainability of global food systems. The event was attended by representatives from several countries, most of them OECD members.

Currently, of OECD’s 38 member countries, 26 are in Europe, and from Asia, only Japan and South Korea take part in it. For the organization to fulfill its mission “to shape policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity, and well-being for all,” the reality of non-member countries must also be included in the debate. For instance, no ASEAN country is a member of the OECD.

The task of establishing public policies and recommendations that apply to all countries is not simple. The process must be inclusive, transparent, and multi-stakeholder. Furthermore, the balance between benefits/impacts in the countries’ social, economic, and environmental areas must be pursued as much as possible.

In the case of the agricultural sector, one must also consider the potential negative impact that some policies, designed with fair purposes, may have on rural producers. Because it is they who will ultimately put into practice a more sustainable, efficient, and resilient agriculture. One should avoid at all costs that well-intentioned policies, instead of being inclusive, push the producers out of their field of activity and even into illegality.

Sueme Mori is Director of International Relations at the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA).

Source: Broadcast