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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
Contact details of provider: Postal: 150 St. George Street, Toronto, Ontario
Phone: (416) 978-5283

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  1. Douglas Gollin & Stephen L. Parente & Richard Rogerson, 2004. "The Food Problem and the Evolution of International Income Levels," Working Papers 899, Economic Growth Center, Yale University.
  2. Douglas A. Irwin, 2010. "Trade Restrictiveness and Deadweight Losses from US Tariffs," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 2(3), pages 111-33, August.
  3. Fernando Alvarez & Robert E. Lucas, 2005. "General Equilibrium Analysis of the Eaton-Kortum Model of International Trade," NBER Working Papers 11764, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Jing Zhang & Andrei A. Levchenko, 2011. "The Evolution of Comparative Advantage: Measurement and Welfare Implications," 2011 Meeting Papers 302, Society for Economic Dynamics.
  5. Ngai, Liwa Rachel & Pissarides, Christopher, 2004. "Structural Change in a Multi-Sector Model of Growth," CEPR Discussion Papers 4763, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
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  7. Kongsamut, Piyabha & Rebelo, Sergio & Xie, Danyang, 2001. "Beyond Balanced Growth," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 68(4), pages 869-82, October.
  8. Foellmi, Reto & Zweimüller, Josef, 2002. "Structural Change and the Kaldor Facts of Economic Growth," CEPR Discussion Papers 3300, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  9. Erhan Artuc & Shubham Chaudhuri & John McLaren, 2007. "Trade Shocks and Labor Adjustment: A Structural Empirical Approach," NBER Working Papers 13465, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Costas Arkolakis & Arnaud Costinot & Andres Rodriguez-Clare, 2012. "New Trade Models, Same Old Gains?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 102(1), pages 94-130, February.
  11. 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.
  12. Kei-Mu Yi & Jing Zhang, 2010. "Structural Change in an Open Economy," Working Papers 595, Research Seminar in International Economics, University of Michigan.
  13. Daron Acemoglu & Veronica Guerrieri, 2006. "Capital Deepening and Non-Balanced Economic Growth," 2006 Meeting Papers 207, Society for Economic Dynamics.
  14. Francesco Caselli & Wilbur John Coleman II, 2001. "The U.S. Structural Transformation and Regional Convergence: A Reinterpretation," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 109(3), pages 584-616, June.
  15. 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.
  16. Tasso Adamopoulos & Diego Restuccia, 2014. "The Size Distribution of Farms and International Productivity Differences," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 104(6), pages 1667-97, June.
  17. Jeremy Greenwood & Gokce Uysal, 2004. "New Goods and the Transition to a New Economy," NBER Working Papers 10793, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  18. Davin Chor, 2008. "Unpacking Sources of Comparative Advantage: A Quantitative Approach," Working Papers 13-2008, Singapore Management University, School of Economics.
  19. Córdoba, Juan Carlos & Ripoll, Marla, 2009. "Agriculture and aggregation," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 105(1), pages 110-112, October.
  20. Douglas Gollin & Richard Rogerson, 2014. "Agriculture, Roads, and Economic Development in Uganda," NBER Chapters, in: African Successes: Sustainable Growth National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  21. Richard Rogerson, 2001. "Farm Work, Home Work and International Productivity Differences," Center for Development Economics 170, Department of Economics, Williams College.
  22. Brandt, Loren & Zhu, Xiaodong, 2010. "Accounting for China's Growth," IZA Discussion Papers 4764, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  23. Diego Restuccia & Dennis Tao Yang & Xiaodong Zhu, 2007. "Agriculture and Aggregate Productivity: A Quantitative Cross-Country Analysis," Working Papers e07-3, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Department of Economics.
  24. Tasso Adamopoulos, 2006. "Transportation Costs, Agricultural Productivity and Cross-Country Income Differences," 2006 Meeting Papers 663, Society for Economic Dynamics.
  25. Inklaar, Robert & Timmer, Marcel P., 2008. "GGDC Productivity Level Database: International Comparisons of Output, Inputs and Productivity at the Industry Level," GGDC Research Memorandum GD-104, Groningen Growth and Development Centre, University of Groningen.
  26. Cristina Echevarria, 2001. "Non-homothetic preferences and growth," The Journal of International Trade & Economic Development, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 9(2), pages 151-171.
  27. Dietrich Vollrath, 2009. "The dual economy in long-run development," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 14(4), pages 287-312, December.
  28. Berthold Herrendorf & Akos Valentinyi, 2006. "Which Sectors Make the Poor Countries so Unproductive?," 2006 Meeting Papers 304, Society for Economic Dynamics.
  29. Kee, Hiau Looi & Nicita, Alessandro & Olarreaga, Marcelo, 2006. "Estimating trade restrictiveness indices," Policy Research Working Paper Series 3840, The World Bank.
  30. Lorenzo Caliendo & Fernando Parro, 2012. "Estimates of the Trade and Welfare Effects of NAFTA," NBER Working Papers 18508, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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