Trade agreements are a major determinant of the operation of food systems. Here, we examine how different aspects of trade can constrain or enable governments’ ability to implement food system-level actions aimed at enhancing nutrition and mitigating climate change. Concerning technical aspects, we focus on the potential impact of trade agreements on three major strategies for transforming food systems—namely the removal of market barriers for agricultural commodities, the protection of regulatory policy space and the revision of subsidies. Concerning non-technical aspects, we review the evidence on the political economy of trade to show that coherence between trade-policy goals and public-interest goals, such as nutrition and climate change, involves actors’ interests, ideas, and formal and informal institutional processes at various levels. With international agreements to liberalize trade and investment being binding, and recommendations to address malnutrition and climate change being non-binding, there is potential for trade to hinder efforts against malnutrition and climate change. Tempering this will require a deeper understanding of the complex trade–food system––nutrition–climate nexus and a new regulatory framework consistent with such complexity, as well as strategic stakeholder engagement.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Globalization and Health Open Access 09 March 2022
Food Security Open Access 02 March 2022
Sustainability Science Open Access 16 February 2022
Subscribe to Nature+
Get immediate online access to the entire Nature family of 50+ journals
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $9.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
McCullough, E. B., Pingali, P. L. & Stamoulis, K. G. The transformation of agri-food systems: globalization, supply chains and smallholder farmers (FAO & Earthscan, 2008).
Labonté, R. & Schrecker, T. in Globalization and health: pathways, evidence and policy (eds Labonté, R. et al.) Ch. 1 (Routledge, 2009).
WTO. Understanding the WTO: The Agreements http://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/whatis_e/tif_e/agrm1_e.htm (2014).
De Schutter, O. International trade in agriculture and the right to food (FES, 2009).
Auboin, M. et al. World Trade Report 2013: Factors shaping the future of world trade (eds Martin, A. & Hancock, J.) (WTO, 2013).
Baldwin, R. 21st century regionalism: Filling the gap between 21st century and 20th century trade rules Policy Insights 2011 No. 56 (Centre for Economic Policy Research Geneva, 2011).
Rodrik, D. What do trade agreements really do? J. Econ. Persp. 32, 73–90 (2018).
Friel, S., Hattersley, L. & Townsend, R. Trade policy and public health. Annu. Rev. Pub. Health 36, 325–344 (2015).
Mayer, J. Policy space: what, for what, and where? Dev. Pol. Rev. 27, 373–395 (2009).
Thow, A. M. et al. Will the next generation of preferential trade and investment agreements undermine prevention of noncommunicable diseases? A prospective policy analysis of the trans Pacific partnership agreement. Health Pol. 119, 88–96 (2015).
Labonte, R. Globalization, health, and the free trade regime: assessing the links. Persp. Glob. Dev. Technol. 3, 47–72 (2004).
Thow, A. M. Trade liberalisation and the nutrition transition: mapping the pathways for public health nutritionists. Pub. Health Nutr. 12, 2150–2158 (2009).
Legge, D., Gleeson, D. & Snowdon, W. Trade agreements and non-communicable diseases in the Pacific islands (WHO, 2011).
Friel, S. et al. A new generation of trade policy: potential risks to diet-related health from the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. Glob. Health 9, 46 (2013).
Friel, S. et al. Monitoring the impacts of trade agreements on food environments. Obesity Rev. 14, 120–134 (2013).
Schram, A. et al. A conceptual framework for investigating the impacts of international trade and investment agreements on noncommunicable disease risk factors. Health Pol. Plan. 33, 123–136 (2017).
Barlow, P., McKee, M., Basu, S. & Stuckler, D. The health impact of trade and investment agreements: a quantitative systematic review and network co-citation analysis. Glob. Health 13, 13 (2017).
Burns, D. K., Jones, A. P. & Suhrcke, M. The relationship between international trade and non-nutritional health outcomes: a systematic review of quantitative studies. Soc. Sci. Med. 152, 9–17 (2016).
Cowling, K., Thow, A. M. & Porter, K. P. Analyzing the impacts of global trade and investment on non-communicable diseases and risk factors: a critical review of methodological approaches used in quantitative analyses. Glob. Health 14, 53 (2018).
García-Dorado, S. C., Cornselsen, L., Smith, R. & Walls, H. Economic globalization, nutrition and health: a review of quantitative evidence. Glob. Health 15, 15 (2019).
Walls, H., Smith, R., Cuevas, S. & Hanefeld, J. International trade and investment: still the foundation for tackling nutrition related non-communicable diseases in the era of Trump? BMJ 365, l2217 (2019).
Baker, P., Kay, A. & Walls, H. Trade and investment liberalization and Asia’s noncommunicable disease epidemic: a synthesis of data and existing literature. Glob. Health 10, 66 (2014).
Swinburn, B. A. et al. The global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change: The Lancet Commission report. Lancet 393, 791–846 (2019).
Willett, W. et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 393, 447–492 (2019).
Jha, S. & Srinivasan, P. V. Food inventory policies under liberalized trade. Int. J. Prod. Econ. 71, 21–29 (2001).
Santos‐Paulino, A. & Thirlwall, A. P. The impact of trade liberalisation on exports, imports and the balance of payments of developing countries. Econ. J. 114, F50–F72 (2004).
Cadot, O., De Melo, J., Estevadeordal, A., Suwa-Eisenmann, A. & Tumurchudur, B. Assessing the effect of NAFTA’s rules of origin (World Bank, 2002).
Wilson, J. S., Mann, C. L. & Otsuki, T. Assessing the benefits of trade facilitation: a global perspective. World Econ. 28, 841–871 (2005).
McCorriston, S. H., Lamontagne-Godwin, J. D. Osborn, J., Parr, M. J. & Roberts, P. D. What is the evidence of the impact of agricultural trade liberalisation on food security in developing countries? A systematic review. (University of London, UK Government, 2013).
Schram, A. et al. The role of trade and investment liberalization in the sugar-sweetened carbonated beverages market: a natural experiment contrasting Vietnam and the Philippines. Glob. Health 11, 41 (2015).
Barlow, P., McKee, M., Basu, S. & Stuckler, D. Impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on high-fructose corn syrup supply in Canada: a natural experiment using synthetic control methods. CMAJ 189, E881–E887 (2017).
Chatterjee, S., Rae, A. & Ray, R. in Globalisation, agriculture and development: perspectives from the Asia-Pacific (eds Tonts, M. & Siddique, M. A. B.) Ch. 6 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).
Hawkes, C. Promoting healthy diets and tackling obesity and diet-related chronic diseases: what are the agricultural policy levers? Food Nutr. Bulletin 28, S312–S322 (2007).
Hawkes, C. in Trade, food, diet and health: perspectives and policy options (eds Hawkes, C. et al.) Ch. 3 (Wiley, 2010).
Thow, A. M. & Hawkes, C. The implications of trade liberalization for diet and health: a case study from Central America. Glob. Health 5, 5 (2009).
Thow, A. M. & Snowdon, W. in Trade, food, diet and health: Perspectives and policy options (eds Hawkes, C. et al.) Ch. 9 (2010).
Friel, S. et al. Shaping the discourse: what has the food industry been lobbying for in the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement and what are the implications for dietary health? Crit. Pub. Health 26, 518–529 (2016).
Wilkinson, J. The globalization of agribusiness and developing world food systems. Monthly Rev. 61, 38 (2009).
Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. Only one of 44 attempts to Use the GATT Article XX/GATS Article XIV ‘General Exception’ Has Ever Succeeded: Replicating the WTO Exception Construct Will Not Provide for an Effective TPP General Exception. Public Citizen https://go.nature.com/2P6h3A9 (2015).
Goldstein, B. D. The precautionary principle also applies to public health actions. Am. J. Public Health 91, 1358–1361 (2001).
Scott, J. The WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009).
Stoler, A. L. in Preferential Trade Agreement Policies for Development (eds Maur, C. & Chauffour, J.-P.) 217–233 (World Bank Publications, 2011).
Thow, A. M., Jones, A., Hawkes, C., Ali, I. & Labonté, R. Nutrition labelling is a trade policy issue: lessons from an analysis of specific trade concerns at the World Trade Organization. Health Prom. Int. 33, 561–571 (2017).
Labonte, R., Schram, A. & Ruckert, A. The Trans-Pacific Partnership: is it everything we feared for health? Int. J. Health Pol. Manag. 5, 487–496 (2016).
Schram, A., Friel, S., Anthony VanDuzer, J., Ruckert, A. & Labonté, R. Internalisation of international investment agreements in public policymaking: developing a conceptual framework of regulatory chill. Global Pol. 9, 193–202 (2018).
Van Harten, G. Sovereign Choices and Sovereign Constraints: Judicial Restraint in Investment Treaty Arbitration (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).
Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. Case studies: investor-state attacks on public interest policies. Public Citizen https://go.nature.com/34Rdfti (2016).
DFAT. Peru–Australia Free Trade Agreement (Australian Government, 2018).
Gerasimchuk, I., Bridle, R., Beaton, C. & Charles, C. State of Play on Biofuel Subsidies: Are policies ready to shift? (The International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2012).
Charles, C. et al. Biofuels—At What Cost? A review of costs and benefits of EU biofuel policies (International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2013).
Harmer, T. Biofuels subsidies and the law of the WTO (International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, 2009).
Hall, P. in Comparative politics: Rationality, culture, and structure (eds Lichbach, M. I. & Zuckerman, A. S.) 174–207 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997).
Townsend, B., Schram, A., Baum, F., Labonté, R. & Friel, S. How does policy framing enable or constrain inclusion of social determinants of health and health equity on trade policy agendas? Crit. Public Health https://doi.org/10.1080/09581596.2018.1509059 (2018).
Baker, P. et al. What enables and constrains the inclusion of the social determinants of health inequities in government policy agendas? A narrative review. Int. J. Health Pol. Manag. 7, 101–111 (2017).
Tanner, T. & Allouche, J. Towards a new political economy of climate change and development. IDS Bulletin 42, 1–14 (2011).
Margulis, M. E. Trading out of the global food crisis? The World Trade Organization and the geopolitics of food security. Geopolitics 19, 322–350 (2014).
Cottier, T. & Payosova, T. in Research Handbook on Climate Change and Trade Law (ed. Delimatsis, P.) Ch. 1 (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2016).
Farsund, A. A., Daugbjerg, C. & Langhelle Food security and trade: reconciling discourses in the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Trade Organization. Food Security 7, 383–391 (2015).
Clapp, J. Food Security and contested agricultural trade norms. J. Int. Law Int. Relat. 11, 104–115 (2015).
Margulis, M. E. The World Trade Organization between law and politics: negotiating a solution for public stockholding for food security purposes. Transnat. Legal Theory 9, 343–360 (2018).
Battams, S. & Townsend, B. Power asymmetries, policy incoherence and noncommunicable disease control. Crit. Public Health https://doi.org/10.1080/09581596.2018.1492093 (2018).
Schram, A. When evidence isn’t enough: ideological, institutional and interest-based constraints on achieving trade and health policy coherence. Glob. Soc. Pol. 18, 62–80 (2017).
Van Asselt, H. The fragmentation of global climate governance: consequences and management of regime interactions (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014).
Benford, R. D. & Snow, D. A. Framing processes and social movements: an overview and assessment. Ann. Rev. Sociol. 26, 611–639 (2000).
Finnemore, M. & Sikkink, K. International norm dynamics and political change. Int. Organization 52, 897 (1998).
Townsend, B., Schram, A., Baum, F., Labonte, R. & Friel, S. How does policy framing enable or constrain inclusion of social determinants of health and health equity on trade policy agendas? Crit. Public Health https://doi.org/10.1080/09581596.2018.1509059 (2018).
Baker, P., Friel, S., Gleeson, D., Thow, A. & Labonte, R. Trade and nutrition policy coherence: A framing analysis and Australian case study. Pub. Health Nutrition 22, 2329–2337 (2019).
Friel, S. et al. Shaping the discourse: what has the food industry been lobbying for in the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement and what are the implications for dietary health? Crit. Public Health 26, 518–529 (2016).
Lencucha, R. & Thow, A. M. How neoliberalism is shaping the supply of unhealthy commodities and what this means for NCD prevention. Int. J. Health Pol. Manag. 8, 514–520 (2019).
Braithwaite, J. & Drahos, P. Global Business Regulation (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000).
Clapp, J. & Scrinis, G. Big Food, nutritionism, and corporate power. Globalizations 14, 578–595 (2017).
Clapp, J. The trade-ification of the food sustainability agenda. J. Peasant Studies 44, 335–353 (2016).
Clapp, J., Newell, P. & Brent, Z. W. The global political economy of climate change, agriculture and food systems. J. Peasant Studies 45, 80–88 (2018).
Lee, R. P. The politics of international agri-food policy: discourses of trade-oriented food security and food sovereignty. Environ. Politics 22, 216–234 (2013).
Burnett, K. & Murphy, S. What place for international trade in food sovereignty? J. Peasant Studies 41, 1065–1084 (2014).
Jarman, H. Trade policy governance: what health policymakers and advocates need to know. Health Policy 121, 1105–1112 (2017).
Friel, S. et al. An exposé of the realpolitik of trade negotiations: implications for population nutrition. Pub. Health Nutrition 22, 3038–3091 (2019).
Walls, H., Smith, R. D. & Drahos, P. Improving regulatory capacity to manage risks associated with trade agreements. Glob. Health 11, 14 (2015).
Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development A/RES/70/1 (United Nations, 2015).
United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition 2016–2025 Work Programme (WHO & FAO, 2017).
Feldbaum, H., Lee, K. & Michaud, J. Global Health and Foreign Policy. Epidemiol. Rev. 32, 82–92 (2010).
Macgregor-Bowles, I. & Bowles, D. C. Trump, Brexit, right-wing anti-globalisation, and an uncertain future for public health. AIMS Public Health 4, 139–148 (2017).
Thow, A. M. & Nisbett, N. Trade, nutrition, and sustainable food systems. Lancet 394, 716–718 (2019).
Hawkes, C. Enhancing coherence between trade policy and nutrition action: implementing the framework for action of the second international conference on nutrition. (United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition, 2015).
Thaiprayoon, S. & Smith, R. Capacity building for global health diplomacy: Thailand’s experience of trade and health. Health Pol. Plan. 30, 1118–1128 (2015).
Thow, A., Annan, R., Mensah, L. & Chowdhury, S. N. Development, implementation and outcome of standards to restrict fatty meat in the food supply and prevent NCDs: learning from an innovative trade/food policy in Ghana. BMC Public Health 14, 249 (2014).
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Friel, S., Schram, A. & Townsend, B. The nexus between international trade, food systems, malnutrition and climate change. Nat Food 1, 51–58 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-019-0014-0
Globalization and Health (2022)
Food Security (2022)
Sustainability Science (2022)
Nature Sustainability (2022)
International investment liberalization, transnational corporations and NCD prevention policy non-decisions: a realist review on the political economy of tobacco, alcohol and ultra-processed food
Globalization and Health (2021)