Sunday, January 20, 2013

Rethinking our fear of foreign food.


This video came to my attention when a dear friend posted it on Facebook. There are a lot of problems with this video but they are not, as you might assume I'm going to say, with the numbers. If you'll indulge me as I get my thoughts in order I'll go through the video step-by-step.

In the first ten seconds a claim is made that most Canadians think of our country as being self-sufficient.  I'm not sure of the validity of this claim, but it's an incredibly anachronistic idea. Why we would want to be self-sufficient? What is the problem with getting our food elsewhere?

I think this concern comes from the gut, and this feeling is what the video exploits. We like the idea of "Canadian" food and goods and we worry over the amount that comes from somewhere else and that something will be wrong with the food - it will be unsafe or they will withhold food from us.

Safety can and is addressed by the requirement that food imported into Canada, like food grown and manufactured in Canada, meets a certain standard of safety before it can be sold here. It's true that some unsafe goods have made it into Canada, but it's also true that we've grown and processed some unsafe food.

The other worry, that foreign countries will deny us food, is a relic of a time when the world was a less peaceful place and we had to worry about just that. In modern times the two biggest world powers - the United States and China - are important trading partners who would have to give up a lot more than they would under self-sufficiency if they tried to go to war. The whole idea behind war for empire building is self-sufficiency and trade has allowed us to move into an era of peace.

The world has moved past having reasons to fear of one another on this level, but our emotions haven't followed suit yet. One way we can help encourage peace is to encourage trade. That doesn't just mean exports - it means imports, too.

So that's the first ten seconds. Don't worry, the first problem was also the most complex.

Next the video presents statistics about how much food Canadians import versus exporting. What, exactly, these statistics represent is hard to say because we're not told how they were measured (and because food value chains are deeply integrated across the North American market, making what qualifies as "Canadian" semantic). Regardless, we certainly import lots of food (like most countries).


Could this be problematic because farming is a job? The number of Canadians working on farms has decreased steadily for a very long time (mostly because of technological improvements, but possibly because of trade as well), while total number of Canadians employed has increased. Empirically, that worry doesn't pan out.

Why do we import things we could grow here? Well, why do California and Florida export oranges to each other? One grows juice oranges and one grows eating oranges. They could each grow both, but there would be fewer oranges and they would spend more growing and processing each orange because they wouldn't be able to take advantage of the efficiencies we get when we grow just one kind and duplicate a lot of machinery. Oranges would be more expensive and, once again, the hardest hit will be the least well off. When the video asks "Is the lower cost of imports worth it?" the answer is, unequivocally, "Yes."

The video brings up the fact that we have less farmland, but what matters is how much land we need to grow our food. We need less farmland because we import more, but we have also been spectacularly successful at farming more food on less land globally. As Mark Lynas recently said in his delightful lecture:
On a global scale, between 1961 and 2010 the area farmed grew by only 12%, whilst kilocalories per person rose from 2200 to 2800. So even with three billion more people, everyone still had more to eat thanks to a production increase of 300% in the same period.
So how much land worldwide was spared in the process thanks to these dramatic yield improvements, for which chemical inputs played a crucial role? The answer is 3 billion hectares, or the equivalent of two South Americas. There would have been no Amazon rainforest left today without this improvement in yields.
Prioritizing how we use our resources and allocating them is one of the most interesting problems facing humanity - one we handle remarkably well, given the sheer number of variables. We haven't made the decisions we've made about where to build cities versus farmland recklessly, as the video implies, simply because we didn't have a high-minded, all-knowing guide directing our actions. (And as Milton Friedman so eloquently asked, "where in the world are we going to find these angels who are going to organize society for us?")

If you want to eat Canadian or local food because it tastes better or because you know the farmer, then you should. If you want to eat the different varieties available when you buy local, fresh food during the summer (the precious few weeks of summer, for most of the country) then do - I know I will. But you shouldn't do it for the reasons in this video.

Videos like this, well-meaning as they may be, demonize policies that have made a wider variety of food more readily available, especially to the poorest Canadians. They are terribly misguided. They should be treated as such.

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