Mercosur countries look to combat protectionism in agricultural trade

The panel at the event, “Global food security and the WTO: the role of Mercosur countries” organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute. Photo by: IFPRI / CC BY-NC-ND

South American countries, such as Argentina and Brazil, have a pivotal role to play in ensuring global food security and sustainability. However, the rise of protectionism and uncertainties surrounding international trade policy have become significant barriers for countries that export agricultural products, according to a recent conference in Washington.

Brazil, for instance, is considered one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of agricultural products to international markets. Its exports are valued over $62.4 billion, and according to the World Trade Organization, agricultural products made up about 42 percent of the country’s total commodity exports in 2015 — with Argentina, China, the European Union and the U.S. topping the list of its trade partners.

During a conference organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute and called “Global food security and the WTO: The role of Mercosur countries,” experts discussed how various economic and political trends would continue to impact countries such as Brazil and Argentina in international trade.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement set to bring the U.S. and 11 other countries into a free-trade zone for about 40 percent of the world’s economy. The move has stoked fears of other nations also raising barriers to free trade, especially as it came after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

While Brazil seeks new markets to expand its trade, some of the experts said the rise of protectionism would be a threat to its current — and any future — role in contributing to global food security and sustainability.

“Now that we need to seek for opportunities in foreign markets, we see the rise of protectionism,” said Ligia Dutra Silva, head of the international office of Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock. But she believes that it is also an opportunity for Brazil to seek out new trade partners. “If protectionism is rising in some places, we need to find different places for our market,” Silva told Devex.

But she also said Brazil should be talking with its current main trading partners, including China, the EU, and the U.S., to strengthen ties where opportunities still exist in those markets.  “We believe that way we will improve food security in the world because we have the capacity to produce more than we are doing,” said Silva.

Some of the experts said the need to create an enabling environment for agricultural products to thrive in international trade would be a major discussion during this year’s WTO ministerial conference in Buenos Aires. It would be an opportunity for agricultural producing and exporting countries to continue to negotiate for support that would strengthen the domestic productivity that is needed to increase exportation of products.

“We believe that food security can be achieved by international trade,” said Nelson Illescas, head of the Argentina-based Institute for International Agricultural Negotiations (Fundación INAI).

However, government leaders also need to be proactive in putting laws in place to support sustainable food production in ways that can still meet global demand, experts said. Illescas gave an example of Argentina’s Forest Law. The law, which was passed in 2007, has resulted in about 60 percent reduction in deforestation, which had been caused by forest-clearing to create land for food production.

“We have laws to stop deforestation, so we strongly believe we are working on the right path to achieve sustainability of production,” Illescas said. “Our countries are working a lot in sustainability… the private and public sector collaborate to achieve sustainable production.”

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About the author

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    Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters ( with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.