by Ian Munro

Asking “do we import too much food?” presupposes that there is, à la Goldilocks and the Three Bears, some “just right” amount. There exists no Baby Bear measure of food imports, however, so let’s first focus instead on what is certain: as the food industry continues to globalize, we face new issues, risks, and opportunities.

Access to a greater variety of products from more international suppliers generates substantial consumer benefits, including improved choice, enhanced competition, and lower prices. It also is true, though, that as we increasingly import food from countries without the same type of regulatory infrastructure that we have in Canada (and other traditional trading partners like the U.S. and western Europe), there may be an increased risk of dangerous goods landing on our shores. (But let’s remember that tainted goods produced domestically or in other developed countries still sometimes end up on our grocery store shelves, too.)

Recent cases involving China are high-profile examples of this phenomenon. It may be prudent to increase – perhaps significantly – the resources we apply to monitoring and inspection efforts for goods coming from these new and growing sources of imports, but we should be wary of knee-jerk reactions based on emotional response to headlines, rather than thoughtful analysis.

Missing from the current debate is an understanding of exactly what measures are in place to protect Canadian consumers from potentially harmful imports. The responsible government agencies should take action to inform Canadians how the system works, where the weaknesses lie, and what the costs and benefits of tighter screening would be.

Moving beyond the safety issue, arguments for import restrictions in order to “support” (i.e., protect) domestic producers should be rejected. Trade restrictions not only hurt consumers by forcing them to buy more expensive products, but also hurt other Canadian producers as trading partners retaliate by restricting our exports. Conversely, open two-way trade maximizes the size of the market available to Canadian producers. Furthermore, engagement in the global economy is the best means available to developing countries for achieving a better standard of living for their citizens; imposing protectionist measures on, say, African farmers would be the very height of selfishness.

Finally, researching the environmental impacts of agricultural practices throughout the world, enabling consumers to make informed decisions, and encouraging environmental stewardship in countries where regulations are lax are all laudable goals. At the same time, we should avoid jumping to the crude conclusion that importing food is always tantamount to environmental degradation – the real world is just not that simple.

Ian Munro is Director of Research at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), a non-partisan public policy think-tank based in Halifax.