"The 'availability' of food at a country scale does not imply that it is available equally to the population of that country," Joel Carr, a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia, US, told environmentalresearchweb. "Also, as production, trade and finances are interwoven, one might imagine a situation whereby food redistribution reduces inequality with regards to calories, or some other metric of nutrition, but increases inequality in 'income' or purchasing power."

Reporting in Environmental Research Letters (ERL), the team provided preliminary results based on an analysis of international trade networks for the years 1986–2011. Central to the analysis was the use of the so-called Gini coefficient – a metric for measuring how far a distribution is from being homogenous. Put simply, if all of a resource is spread equally among all people then the Gini coefficient is 0. But if all of a resource lies with a single person, the Gini coefficient is 1.

The group reconstructed the global food trade network based on international food production and trade records and used it to explore how each trade link impacts inequality. This required navigating an extremely large volume of data.

"Each trade link generates a vector of impacts – both positive and negative – on every country participating in the trade network," explained Carr. "As an example, in 2011 roughly 216,000 individual commodity trade links generated more than 32 million impacts (distinct changes in inequality)."

Across all years, the researchers found that 58% of the total trade links acted to reduce inequality and these trade links were associated with roughly three quarters of the calorie transfers. What’s more, the activity was concentrated – with 4% of the trade links providing 95% of the reduction in inequality.

Considering the various types of food that were traded, the top commodities whose transfers overall reduced inequality were sugar (refined), rice (milled), palm oil, maize and wheat.

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