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The Missing Food Problem: How Low Agricultural Imports Contribute to International Income and Productivity Differences

  • Trevor Tombe

This paper finds an important relationship between the international food trade and cross-country income and productivity differences. Poor countries have low labour productivity in agriculture relative to other sectors, yet predominantly consume domestically-produced food. To understand these observations, I describe and exploit a general equilibrium model of international trade to: (1) measure sectoral productivity and trade costs across countries; and (2) quantify the impact of low poor-country food imports on international income and productivity gaps. Specifically, I expand on Yi and Zhang [2010] and modify an Eaton-Kortum trade model to incorporate multiple sectors, non-homothetic preferences, and labour mobility costs. With this model, I estimate PPP-adjusted productivity from observed bilateral trade data, avoiding problematic price and employment data in poor countries that direct output-per-worker estimates require. I find reasonable trade barriers and labour mobility costs account for the low poor-country imports despite their low productivity. Through various counterfactual experiments, I quantify how easing import barriers and labour mobility costs increases imports and within-agriculture specialization, shuts down low productivity domestic food producers, and lowers the gap between rich and poor countries. I also find an interaction between domestic labour-market distortions and trade barriers not found in the existing dual-economy literature, which largely abstracts from open-economy considerations. Overall, I account for one-third of the aggregate labour productivity gap between rich and poor countries and for nearly half the gap in agriculture.

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Paper provided by University of Toronto, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number tecipa-416.

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Length: 49 pages
Date of creation: 26 Nov 2010
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:tor:tecipa:tecipa-416
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  9. Tasso Adamopoulos & Diego Restuccia, 2013. "The Size Distribution of Farms and International Productivity Differences," Working Papers tecipa-480, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
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  17. Davin Chor, 2008. "Unpacking Sources of Comparative Advantage : A Quantitative Approach," Macroeconomics Working Papers 22071, East Asian Bureau of Economic Research.
  18. Arnaud Costinot & Dave Donaldson & Ivana Komunjer, 2012. "What Goods Do Countries Trade? A Quantitative Exploration of Ricardo's Ideas," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 79(2), pages 581-608.
  19. Costas Arkolakis & Arnaud Costinot & Andrés Rodríguez-Clare, 2009. "New Trade Models, Same Old Gains?," NBER Working Papers 15628, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  21. Loren Brandt & Xiaodong Zhu, 2010. "Accounting for China's Growth," Working Papers tecipa-394, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
  22. David Lagakos & Michael E. Waugh, 2013. "Selection, Agriculture, and Cross-Country Productivity Differences," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 103(2), pages 948-80, April.
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  27. Douglas Gollin & Richard Rogerson, 2014. "Agriculture, Roads, and Economic Development in Uganda," NBER Chapters, in: African Successes: Sustainable Growth, Volume 4 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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