30 Mar 2009

Weekend Discussion: Foreign Food

NOTE: This post will stay here until Sunday night. Posts for Saturday and Sunday morning go below this post.

Dear Aguanauts,

Discussion posts allow you to discuss your beliefs on a topic -- to share your understanding, experience and opinions -- without worrying about what's right or what others think. (Check out last week's discussion on Tribal Water.) Most important, the discussion allows us to learn from each other. So...

Should we buy food from "foreigners" (another county, state, or country)?


  1. Of course! The "locavore" thing is cute, but it can be used as an excuse for protectionism, and is certainly no guarantee of environmental protection. Look at the folly of the Saudis trying to grow "their own" rice and wheat, the Brazillian generals spending millions to destroy the rain forests in the 1960's, and practically anything the Communists attempted. Producers being able to express their comparative advantage is still a force for peace and cooperation among nations, as well as fundamental to market economies and rational economic growth.

  2. Some thoughts:

     The question of whether we should obtain food from foreign countries is very different from the question of whether we should obtain food from other states and counties in the U.S.

     The answer to the latter question is, I think, unquestionably yes. Although buying locally-grown food is something to be encouraged to the extent it’s feasible, it’s not a viable option for most geographic areas, at least for a portion of each year, or for many types of foods.

     However, the answer to the former question is, I think, quite different. In light of the climate and water problems the global community faces, the U.S. should obtain food from foreign countries only to the extent that the true costs – including water usage and carbon footprint for production and transport from one country to another – are reflected in the prices we pay. It is not necessary for the U.S. to obtain any food from other countries; foreign food is really a luxury item, and should be treated as such in light of the environmental costs involved. Furthermore, we should never, ever become dependent on foreign food as our basic supply of sustenance. The notion that we should use our land and water in this country for other “higher” uses than agriculture, and thereby become reliant on other countries for food production, is misguided and dangerous. If you think it’s problematic being reliant on foreign countries for oil, just wait until we’re dependent on them for our food. The national security and human health implications of such a scenario are positively frightening.

    -- JER

  3. I'll be more comfortable when this "carbon footprint" business and other arbitrary measures of externalities are subjected to published, peer-reviewed and generally accepted standards. Right now, methodologies aren't subject to proper questioning when one pundit or another says something has a carbon or water footprint of so-and-so. It is just a word.
    America will never stop producing a large quantity of food, and exporting a great quantity of that. God help us all if it can not, because in the next 40 years the world's farmers will have to produce as much food as they have in the past 10,000. I like my French wine and Argentine beef, and see no reason to feel guilty for trading with our neighbors, nor do I feel guilty selling more than half of my agricultural output to overseas customers. If the poster is suggesting the imposition of large import tariffs to reflect "true cost", they'd better be backed up with a lot of facts and explanations, and he'd better be prepared for our neighbors to do the same. Messers Smoot and Hawley tried such things in the late 1920's (albeit for different reasons) with predictable results.
    Carbon taxes are a far better way to go. (I am waiting for a hybrid airplane, however.)

  4. The point has been made anonymously, above, so I won't belabor it:

    We should be careful, in offshoring food production, to make sure we aren't creating worse environmental impacts than we have at home.

    I am unaware of any large-scale agricultural opportunities that exist in regulatory regimes that are the equal of California's in trying to control environmental impacts.

    The other part, the food-security part, doesn't bother me so much.

  5. To be sustainable we must keep things as local as possible and stimulate communities rather than big business. Will state and global trade continue? sure. But it shouldn't be at the level it is today. And "true cost" is a very important issue in all purchases currently clouded by subsidies that we must become aware of. i.e. if we can grow it local, we should.

  6. Foreign food can only be a topic of interest to anyone with too much time on their hands and too little actual knowledge. There are a hundred points on which this argument is unimportant. Here are a couple.

    1) We actually import a very small portion of our food, e.g., 7% by value in 2007, and has only grown from about 4% in 1990.
    2) Most of our imports of food are, in order of importance, Fish and Shell Fish, Fruit and Nuts, Wine and Beer, and Vegetables. It is hard to find much frivolity here.
    3) Our exports of agricultural products greatly exceed our imports. While it varies by month and by season, October 2008 is a pretty typical month. We exported about $10.6 billion and imported about $6.8 billion. If we stopped exporting, our balance of payments problem would get even worse.
    4)We would have to revoke David Ricardo's ideas on Comparative Advantage. The rice we grow in California (albeit with subsidized water)costs substantially less to produce than the rice grown in little paddies in Japan. Should Japanese have to pay higher prices for rice because their own producer's higher costs?
    5)If we stopped importing food, we would probably bankrupt a number of countries. Over 7% of New Zealand's GNP is exports of agricultural products. There is no way they could absorb that amount internally. The comparable number for the U.S. is 1.4%.
    6) We would have to outlaw Pubilius Syrus's 1st Century BC idea that "A thing is whatever the buyer will pay for it". So a Frenchman living in Paris would not be allowed to buy roses grown in Israel for his girl friend even though he could afford them. I would not be allowed to buy my favorite Australian Pinot Noir even though I can afford it.
    7) We would not be allowed to eat cherries grown in Chile in December even though all the cherry trees in the U.S. are covered with snow.
    8) We would not be allowed to eat tomatoes grown in Mexico in May even though the tomato harvest in California does not start until June.
    9) Residents in Arizona would presumably not be allowed to eat tomatoes grown in California at any time of the year. This idea then goes on expanding forever!
    10) France would probably suffer a psychotic break if all their cherished farmers had no markets beyond a day's drive in a truck. What would farmers everywhere in the world do if they could not sell their produce to anybody in the world with money to pay for it?

    You get the idea. It is a pretty silly topic in a world with serious problems.


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