Unequal trade perpetuates malnutrition – but there is another way

10 minutes

No one in Africa should have to grow up without access to a healthy diet. Yet hunger and malnutrition persist in many areas. Globalisation of the food trade has done nothing to prevent this, and agriculture and food policy are not delivering what they should. This is mainly due to a hundred years of trade dominance by industrialised countries and the dumping of cheap surpluses in Africa, argues Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters. But there is another way.

During the the second UN Food Systems Summit, hundreds of country representatives will be hosted by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome to discuss the state of play relating to food and food security worldwide. The first Food Systems Summit was held in New York two years ago. On that occasion, countries pledged to start working on better food systems.

A food system encompasses everything involved in producing and consuming food – from the tiniest seed and the fertiliser factory to growing food, processing and marketing it and ultimately to the way in which we eat and drink it. If all goes well, the outcome of the food system is not only nutritious food for everyone, but also employment and income for farmers and food processors. Moreover, all this must take place without harming the environment and climate.

How everything works in that food system is largely dependent on political and economic factors, says Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters, a food system expert at Wageningen Economic Research. “African food systems are heavily shaped by unfair trade and international policies. And that is also where we should look for the explanation when something goes wrong.”

Food aplenty

And something is going wrong. There is hunger. Many people have an inadequate daily calorie intake. But even more people do not get enough micronutrients because they do not eat enough healthy fruit and vegetables, for example. Yet it does not have to be this way. “African food systems could feed every single person perfectly well. This does not mean they need to grow all the food themselves, because almost no country in the world is self-sufficient when it comes to food. Nor does it have to be. There is plenty of food in the world. But there has to be a healthy balance between homegrown production and food imports from the region or from world trade.” To bring this about, a country must have adequate domestic production capacity and pursue a good trade policy. Inhabitants must also have sufficient purchasing power. “If consumers consume more nutritious homegrown food, this helps economic development and boosts the resilience of the food system.”

This tends not to be happening right now. Many African countries do not produce enough and import a lot of cheap food, such as wheat and rice, from elsewhere on the continent and further afield. The war in Ukraine has shown how vulnerable that makes a food system. If imports of cheap wheat from Ukraine suddenly stop, malnutrition on the continent increases immediately.


This situation is the product of historical development and the result of the dominance of industrialised countries in world trade, says De Steenhuijsen Piters. “Africa’s dependence on food imports has come about because the US and Europe have been dumping cheap grain on the African market for a hundred years or so,” says De Steenhuijsen Piters. “We needed to get rid of our overproduction to ensure higher prices for our farmers at home. This presents farmers in Africa with unfair competition. African agriculture has no chance in the markets where we dump food such as grain. The same applies to onions and dairy from the Netherlands.”

What is more, this has led to an unhealthy diet for many African consumers. “The door of African countries is wide open to foreign grain, which is high-calorie food. This cheap, imported grain dominates the daily diet of a great many African consumers.” And this is at the expense of domestically produced food with much higher nutritional values.


On top of this, the global food trade is increasingly concentrated and dominated by four multinationals – the food giants ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus. They trade food like any other commodity and see it only as a means to make money. With the help of big investors and financial institutions, they dominate world trade. Using what are known as futures, they buy grain that has yet to be produced and sell it later to customers with the greatest purchasing power. “This is how trade in raw materials works. But we need to start questioning whether you can treat food like any other merchandise. After all, food is an essential requirement for life on Earth. We have regulations for the trade in medicines. They should also be in place for food.”

Because regarding food as merchandise has perverse consequences, says De Steenhuijsen Piters. The grain deal with Ukraine, Russia and Turkey in late 2022 was seen as a way to alleviate food shortages in Africa. But in reality, says De Steenhuijsen Piters, it was mainly Dutch and Spanish pig farmers who benefited. Most of Ukraine’s grain does not go to people in Africa, but disappears into the stomachs of pigs. “The food goes to whoever has the greatest purchasing power.”

Farmers constrained

There is another factor that weakens food systems in Africa. “Farmers in Africa have very little room for manoeuvring,” he says. In the 1980s and 1990s, African governments were required by the World Bank to liberalise their trade policies. And African countries have no money to support farmers. Farmers in Europe and the US, on the other hand, receive subsidies, which has led to the dumping of cheap food in Africa.

In Tanzania, for example, wheat can be grown very well, says De Steenhuijsen Piters. But farmers in Tanzania are faced with much higher costs than farmers in the EU or Ukraine. They receive no subsidies, have high energy costs, often work a small plot of land and face unfavourable trade policies. Therefore, Tanzanian farmers cannot compete with cheap wheat imports.

Economic growth

Too many people in Africa work in agriculture, all trying to make ends meet on small plots of land under difficult conditions. “Estimates suggest that some 70% of people who are currently dependent on agriculture in Africa would have to find an income elsewhere, so that the 30% who do continue to farm are given enough space and opportunities.” This will require economic growth in other sectors, says De Steenhuijsen Piters, so that there is also more demand for healthier homegrown food.

For African agriculture to develop in a healthy manner, Africa must also begin to export more processed agricultural products rather than just raw materials. A couple of examples would be roasted coffee and chocolate instead of just raw coffee and cocoa beans. But the EU currently taxes those processed products far more than the raw materials.

A different policy

Many of the problems faced by African food systems stem from unfair relationships between industrialised countries and countries in Africa, concludes De Steenhuijsen Piters. But there is something that can be done about this, he thinks.

It calls for sound trade policies where African countries are also allowed to impose restrictions on imports of cheap grain and other food. Or to start taxing unhealthy food besides supporting and subsidising nutritious homegrown food. African countries also need to start urging the EU to open up the European market for high-value African exports.

Understanding the system

“If governments, social organisations and consumers in Africa gained a better understanding of their food system, this would also help,” says De Steenhuijsen Piters. That is something Wageningen University & Research is working on in a project called Foresight for Food Systems Transformation, which is all about looking ahead. In five countries – Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda, Jordan and Niger – as many stakeholders as possible are being brought together around the table to engage with each other to try to understand their food system and come up with solutions to problems. “This process is similar to the attempt in the Netherlands to reach an agricultural agreement. But many countries we work in seem to be finding more success with it.”

WUR is contributing knowledge, data and models, and guiding the process. Based on this, the participants are developing scenarios and setting priorities. The aim is to use this approach to achieve a better food policy that is widely supported.

Healthy vegetables

This does call for consumers to start choosing nutritious food more often. WUR is involved in a project that is working to promote healthy leafy vegetables among consumers in the West African countries of Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali. Researchers from local research partners in those countries, together with researchers from WUR, analysed the food system and concluded that healthy vegetables in the informal street trade are far too expensive for poor people and also often unsafe. Local researchers teamed up with street food vendors to see whether food vendors could use more leafy vegetables in their recipes. And this was convincingly successful. Vendors will also start selling safe vegetables, recognisable by a label. Those vegetables come from farms that do not use too many pesticides.

These are small steps towards a healthier food system, acknowledges De Steenhuijsen Piters. After all, real change calls for the transformation of the whole system. That will also require political change and a fairer trading system. But at the same time, change must also come from the bottom up, says De Steenhuijsen Piters. So, it is not only policy makers and politicians that should have a say, but also farmers, street traders and urban consumers.