National food self-sufficiency is an idea that appeals to many non-economists.

For example, George W. Bush (2001):

It’s important for our Nation to be able to grow foodstuffs to feed our people. Can you imagine a country that was unable to grow enough food to feed the people? It would be a nation that would be subject to international pressure. It would be a nation at risk. And so when we’re talking about American agriculture, we’re really talking about a national security issue.

I believe that in contrast, most economists view this as a bad idea.

For example, The Economist (2008-05-29), writing during the 2007–08 food crisis:

The argument for self-sufficiency is easiest to counter. Anyone who believes autarky is the route to food security should look at starving North Korea. In world markets trade barriers, not the lack of them, have exacerbated the mess. The commodities that have seen the biggest price spikes are those which tend to be traded least. Only 6% of global rice production, for instance, flows across borders. Unilateral export restrictions, such as those imposed by Vietnam and India, have made matters worse. Global supply is disrupted and domestic farmers discouraged from producing more. The route to deeper, less volatile markets lies through freer trade and fewer distortions. The notion that free trade precludes food security is plainly wrong-headed.

Mohanty (2012):

in the long run, major rice-consuming countries that pursue self-sufficiency may be in danger. If these countries achieved self-sufficiency, import demand for rice would fall. This would push exporters, such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Pakistan, to cut back on their production to reduce exportable surplus and use their lands in planting other profitable crops.

The global rice market, which is relatively small compared with that of other major crops such as wheat, corn (maize), and soybeans, is likely to become even smaller if rice-consuming countries vigorously pursue self-sufficiency. A consequence of a smaller market is greater price volatility and, the smaller the market size, the more the prices have to move in response to any supply and demand shock.

In a year of low production, prices will rise rapidly; in a year of higher production, prices will fall rapidly with greater volatility. This is particularly worrisome since rice production can fluctuate greatly from year to year, at the whim of nature. And, if climate change predictions are realized, extreme weather conditions will be more frequent, leading to regular price spikes in the rice market. ...

A strong global market is essential to achieve global food security for rice. This does not mean that countries should give up rice production and depend on foreign rice. Every country has the basic right to produce enough food for its citizens and this is particularly true for rice, a staple for the world’s poorest of the poor. However, countries might be wiser to try to increase production by improving yield in a sustainable manner rather than pursuing self-sufficiency at any cost.

My question: Have there been any economists who have argued in favor of national food self-sufficiency and what are some of their arguments?

NB. The price of rice rose dramatically during the 2007–08 food crisis (source):

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    $\begingroup$ This is an important topic, but it's unfortunate that the question in your title isn't quite the same as that in bold towards the end, the latter but not the former asking whether any economists have argued in favour of national food self-sufficiency. This may have contributed to a situation in which the two answers posted to date have both received downvotes (not from me). Would it be possible to edit the question so that there is consistency between the title and body? $\endgroup$ – Adam Bailey Feb 11 '19 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ @AdamBailey: This website is Economics.SE. So presumably, any arguments we need concern ourselves with here are necessarily arguments that have been seriously considered by at least some economists. The goal here is also to avoid answers that simply rehash the above George W. Bush quote. $\endgroup$ – user18 Mar 13 '19 at 8:39

Have there been any economists who have argued in favor of national food self-sufficiency and what are some of their arguments?

I am not knowledgeable of literature in that direction, but some of the arguments in the aforementioned excerpts are flawed.

Simply put, self-sufficiency does not preclude free trade. The excerpt of The Economist certainly admits that "The notion that free trade precludes food security is plainly wrong-headed", but it still misses subtle differences between security and self-sufficiency: (1) the latter intrinsically entails more autonomy; and (2) the cost of reliance on international markets might ultimately outweigh the costs of pursuing self-sufficiency.

The undeveloped mention of "starving North Korea" in The Economist improperly conflates the notion of food self-sufficiency and North Korea's policy of generalized isolationism. But, more generally, a country may prioritize food self-sufficiency without necessarily imposing trade barriers.

Note that The Economist article mentions Vietnam and India as examples of economies with export restrictions. But an export restriction is consistent with the purposes of self-sufficiency: It aims at ensuring that the domestic production of the commodity is not depleted by international markets prematurely (that is, prior to satisfying the domestic demand). An increased volatility in international markets as a result of the export restriction becomes irrelevant to the domestic economy if the net effect is that its population is not deprived of the commodity it produces.

Likewise, the issue of "domestic farmers [being] discouraged from producing more" has to do with policy (sub-)optimality regarding the excedents from self-sufficiency. It is not a defect inherent to self-sufficiency.

Mohanty's position fares better in that he rather discourages "pursuing self-sufficiency at any cost". But his argument of climate change predictions is self-defeating because a concentration of supply exacerbates a bottleneck risk --and therewith its potential severity-- of a commodity trade. The global impact of extreme weather conditions is predictably worse in the context of fewer exporters than if sources of supply are geographically more diversified because more economies pursue self-sufficiency.


The main argument for food self-sufficiency---endorsed by Bush in the quote you have---is that being dependant on other countries for food reduces the power a country can hope to wield on an international level. However valid or invalid, this is an argument that an economist would be very unlikely to make, as economists tend to focus their work exclusively on trade and ignore the political implications of the policies their endorse.

So, the answer to your first question would be that when a country is food self-sufficient, that could allow it to have a greater voice in international debate and make it less vulnerable to exploitation by other countries. Further, one could argue that by becoming food self-sufficient, countries make it harder for each other to conduct war and so make war less likely. The answer to your second question is no; talk to a political scientist.


I recognize that I cannot prove a negative and claim "no economists want this", but I will caution that there will be few economists with an interest in food independence (being a food autarky) because it is fundamentally opposed by well-accepted economic theory, the Ricardian Trade model.

Take a look at the Ricardian Trade model. Here's a link to a nice micro textbook I use (open source). Chapter 19 covers trade and the Ricardian model basically suggests a good trade can always be reached. It's always preferable to specialize in some good and trade for what we need (with open trade policies). Overall consumption will increase for us as a result, even if we are vastly larger in every relevant production capacity.

Most exceptions I have seen (arguments for closing trade) involve highly technical/industrial goods being restricted for import in developing countries. This encourages native development of those technical industries, hopefully furthering development. Even these fringe cases are a rare exception, not the rule.

A few other arguments revolve around security. Conflict, in general, is bad for overall consumption and typically best avoided. But, if there is some sort of security benefit to food independence, that benefit is heavily reduced by the inefficiencies of such policies.


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