Big Thinking speaker calls for compromise in the debate over trade and food security

June 3, 2016
Caleb Snider, Congress 2016 student blogger

In the final installment of the Big Thinking lecture series at this year’s Congress, Professor Jennifer Clapp (University of Waterloo) called for an end to polarization and the beginning of compromise and collaboration in the debate over trade and food security. Clapp began her lecture by framing the issue of food security: that more than 800 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished, and that many of those people are poor agriculturalists living in countries dependent on food imports.

Those seeking solutions to this and related issues of food security generally fall into two diametrically opposed ideological camps: those who see trade as the solution, and those who see it as the problem.

The pro-trade point of view argues that comparative advantage should increase production and efficiency, improve food distribution, and that market distortions (like tariffs and subsidies) can only harm food security. The argument that trade is harmful to food security, on the other hand, states that liberalized trade practices disregard the broader social and ecological roles and impacts that agriculture has and poses an enormous risk of undermining livelihoods, autonomy and land rights, and modern industrialized agriculture has massive ecological impact.

At the risk of losing friends on both sides of the debate, Clapp said that neither argument was entirely right or entirely wrong, and that solutions will only come when both sides stop arguing past each other and come to the table to compromise. She offered the refreshingly optimistic view that such a compromise is possible by framing the argument in a new way by looking for open-ended, balanced approaches that are not so polarizing, by embracing the complexities and nuances of the problem (that there is no one-size-fits-all solution), by increasing participation by civil society, and by taming the powerful interests involved through increased transparency and participatory trade negotiations that bring a much wider variety of parties to the table.

Clapp’s lecture Navigating the global food fight: Trade, food security and the battle for policy space, was hosted on June 2 at Congress 2016 by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and sponsored by the Fondation Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.