New UNCTAD-WHO analysis reveals trends in processed foods trade

07 March 2024

The processed food trade matrix looks closely at food imports and exports at different processing levels and various country groups.

Workers in a fish processing factory
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© Borkin Vadim/Shutterstock | Workers in a fish processing factory.

  • Global trade in food grew by 350% from 2000 to 2021, reaching a total value of $1.7 trillion.

  • 783 million are hungry worldwide, while one in eight people live with obesity.

  • Developed economies import a higher proportion of processed food, comprising about 48% of their total food imports, compared to around 35% for developing economies.

Regardless of where you live, part of your daily diet – from your morning coffee or tea to the fish, meat, rice, pasta or vegetables on the lunch menu – was likely grown, caught, processed or packaged in another country.

Global trade in food grew by 350% from 2000 to 2021, reaching a total value of $1.7 trillion. Food now represents about 8% of total merchandise trade globally, compared to 6% in 2000.

With as many as 783 million people facing hunger worldwide in 2022, trade can help improve access to food.

“But not all foods that are imported and exported are equally good for us, and the composition of food trade can have important health impacts,” says Anu Peltola, director of UNCTAD’s statistics service.

For example, processed foods such as canned fruits or vegetables, breakfast cereals and pre-packaged meals, tend to carry more added value but could contain higher levels of sugars and salts.

This episode of the Weekly Tradecast looks at the connection between food, health and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals with Bojan Nastav, a statistician with UN Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

A new framework to assess trade in processed foods

A study by UNCTAD and the World Health Organization (WHO) presents a new framework for analysing the global food trade. The global trade matrix of processed food released on 7 March shows trends for food imports and exports at different levels of processing and for different country groups.

The trends can help shed light on important economic, social and health dimensions in a country or region.

A surge in high-sugar, high-fat processed food imports could alert the need to monitor more closely certain public health risks, such as obesity. According to the WHO, adult obesity worldwide has more than doubled since 1990, while for adolescents it has quadrupled. In 2022, one in eight people in the world were living with obesity.

A growing reliance on imported processed foods could also highlight issues related to food security and self-sufficiency in food production.

“The matrix allows people and decision makers to see patterns in food trade not available before, helping them more effectively fight hunger, promote healthy and nutritious diets and increase food security,” Ms. Peltola says.

WHO Director of Data and Analytics Steve MacFeely adds: “We proposed a categorization of processing types into seven categories and avoid inherently framing processing as detrimental. Rather, we seek to understand imported or exported food dynamics, in line with the WHO’s emphasis on overall diet.”

Global trends and outliers

Data for the past two decades show that, overall, developed economies have consistently imported more processed food as a share of their total food imports, averaging about 48% compared to around 35% for developing economies.

But the global averages hide nuances, and two groups defy the overall trend: developed economies in Asia and developing economies in Oceania.

For developed economies in Asia, a group that includes the Republic of Korea and Singapore, processed foods have consistently made up 40% or less of total food imports – a share that has fallen below that of developing economies in the Americas.

Conversely, processed foods have consistently exceeded 45% of total food imports for developing economies in Oceania, a group that includes many vulnerable small island developing states. At times, the group’s share has surpassed levels for developed economies in the Americas and Europe.

“The Trade in Processed Food Matrix will help governments use trade policies more effectively to fight hunger, promote healthy and nutritious diets and increase food security”, Ms. Peltola says.

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