Navigating the world of crises for a more hopeful and sustainable tomorrow

Mari Carlson | November 1, 2023

Setting the scene

When proposing changes to agri-food trade policies, we need to start by capturing and understanding the existing structures that form the trade policy sphere. However, it is not enough to describe the current state, but we must be aware of the historical developments and path-dependences that mark these structures. Especially when we enter the foreign policy space where international relations are formed through historical power relations, such as economic or military power. And let’s not forget about normative power – how someone wants the world to be.

Trade policy, agricultural policy, and sustainable development policies all have their own history and most of the time, they have developed in siloes. Each country has their own history, attitudes, values, and priorities when it comes to those (and pretty much any other) policies. This raises the question of whose history, values, or vision should guide us, and whether there are universally shared priorities. In today’s global landscape, it appears there are few (think of SDGs), and while these questions are contemplated, urgent issues such as environmental degradation and hunger persist.

Crises and more crises

Crises are potential moments for dislocating existing societal structures. What if a crisis quietly evolves, almost imperceptibly, or endures for an extended period, ultimately becoming an accepted norm? Only few years ago, environmental crisis was seemingly penetrating each policy arena. Even a great share of WTO members took it seriously and drove environmental sustainability into trade politics. The environmental triple crisis threatens the life of each species on this planet, but the neoliberal system continues to neglect, ignore, and deny it (yes, it does). Everybody should know by now that food production is particularly vulnerable to climate change (we’ve just had a consortium meeting in Tanzania – just speak to farmers there). Nevertheless, new trade measures aimed at promoting environmental benefits or endeavoring to integrate environmental values into the neoliberal system encounter strong opposition.

Then we have acute crises that overrun other persisting crises, which is why ‘polycrisis’ may be a useful way of looking at the world right now. The COVID-19 pandemic shook the world in many ways – on the one hand, it recalled the importance of multilateral cooperation and free flow of goods and services (just think about food and medicine) while on the other hand, it revealed the vulnerabilities in critical supply chains that made many countries rethink their value chains. This finalized the rise of unilateralism. Then we saw the vulgar aggression of Russia towards Ukraine, and most lately the war that broke out between Israel and Hamas (Palestine). Unfortunately, the list of armed conflicts is longer, but the point here is that Russia’s war against Ukraine sealed the fragmentation of the international order. Geopoliticisation is everywhere and it is all about taking sides. The determination of sides will be based on which narrative resonates most with your own perspective – emotions, values, beliefs.

Food and war

The acute crises reminded us how food is used as a strategic weapon and that food shortages – even famine – are integral parts of (armed) conflicts (think about WWII and its aftermath that led to the creation of the EU Common Agricultural Policy). But what happens when world’s breadbasket, Ukraine, and Russia, are at war? They are major grain exporters, in particular to Africa, and Russia has exploited the “opportunity” to weaponize grain trade (go check another MATS/Ukraine project “Repairing Broken Food Trade Routes Ukraine – Africa” by World Trade Institute (WTI) here). Despite Russia’s practices on threatening food security has been widely deemed, the weaponization continues. The weaponization of food supplies occurs also in the case of Israeli-Hamas war (and in many others). Starving civilians is a war crime.

Breaking the illusion

While food security has been an integral part of local, regional, and global (trade) policymaking for years the relatively peaceful times since WWII have made people (in the rich world) numb to the value of the current stability and prosperity, and numb to implications from potential disruptions: war, diseases (animal, plant, or human health threatening – don’t forget about COVID-19), climate change (droughts, decertification, floods, extreme temperatures (high and low), or trade restrictions, to name few.

Some have been privileged to live in the illusion that food falls from the sky and nothing can disrupt its supply. International trade will always guarantee the availability of food. But think about the other side of the coin: environmental and social degradation as well as climate change are affecting your survival and economic base. Even if food was available, you live in poverty and cannot afford it. Perhaps international trade is not guaranteeing anything for you personally, but looming disruptions to it concern you every day, in terms of affordability, equity, and health. Or imagine you being a small farmer relying on export-oriented cash-crops, you likely fear for more trade related regulations that depress your economic viability.

Having provided a very simplistic example of two sides of the coin, let’s go back to the beginning of this post. Are there commonly agreed-upon priorities in the current global system? Can there even be? United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres outlined priorities for the UN for 2023 in his speech to the General Assembly. He said: “we have started 2023 staring down the barrel of a confluence of challenges unlike any other in our lifetimes” listing wars, the climate crisis, extreme poverty, and geopolitical divisions as major challenges. However, we need to acknowledge that these challenges are not commonly shared – not even believed.  Many times what is out of sight, remains out of mind. Many crises become normalized. Think about food and nutrition insecurity or environmental catastrophes which are being visible on our TVs but not in our own neighborhoods. When are these close enough for us to care? Is there something wrong if we don’t?

Mind your own business?

The global trading environment has changed radically in just the past few years. For that reason, MATS must consider, and is considering it: the geopoliticisation of trade, rising unilateralism, and different positions that countries hold. As an EU project, we are not only “path-dependent” on our own trade policy, which determines the leeway for our agri-food trade policies. We should also be reminded by our own norms how path-dependence can be addressed for the sake of a more inclusive and societally legitimate sustainability transition pathways. Recall that the EU has its own set of values, including a strong environmental sustainability agenda. The question is: How do we create sustainable transition pathways in a mutually beneficial and realistic way that are based on ‘societal’ legitimacy? Understanding only ourselves is not, however, the solution.

Mari Carlson is the co-coordinator for the MATS project. She is also a doctoral researcher in the doctoral programme in Sustainable Use of Renewable Natural Resources at the University of Helsinki. Her research combines trade policy, environmental sustainability, and agriculture.