The history of agricultural trade stretches back more than ten millennia, but it became more inter-continental from the 17th century and much denser in the 19th century following the repeal of Britain’s protective Corn Laws in 1846 and major declines in international trade costs. Trade was chaotic in the period bookended by the two world wars, but trade policy anarchy gave way to greater certainty after the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was signed in 1947. This paper seeks to identify the forces that shaped that history, and to re-examine the case for continued openness to trade in farm products. It does so in the wake of uneven economic growth and structural transformation and as agri-food systems respond to increased market and policy uncertainties this century – and to growing pressures for agricultural production to become more sustainable and for its food outputs to be more nutritious. The paper points to better policy options than trade measures for achieving most national objectives – options that can simultaneously benefit the rest of the world. Areas for further economic research also are provided in the final section.
Keywords: Trade barriers; trade costs; trade specialization, agricultural comparative advantage JEL Codes: F13, F15, Q17, Q18