The U.S.'s Increasing Reliance on Food Imports

Currently, the U.S. imports about 15% of its food – and over 80% of its seafood. Since the 1970s, the rate of U.S. food imports has risen steadily with a jump in importsfrom Mexico, Canada, and Latin America following NAFTA, according to the USDA. The U.S. does not grow enough citrus (traditionally laborious and back-breaking work, but more and more automated), for example, to meet current needs for juice and fresh fruit, and thus imports citrus from Brazil, Australia, and increasingly, South Africa.

A Trend Likely to Increase

Over the past half century, citrus growers have sold their groves to real estate developers. In spite of the real estate bust, this trend continues according to the University of Florida IFAS, The U.S. exports food too, of course: during NAFTA Mexico increased its importation of corn in an effort to keep prices down, bringing corn primarily from the U.S. The percentage of food imported by the U.S. is likely to increase not decrease.

Recently proposed food safety bills (S 510, being eyed during the 111th Congress's "Lame Duck" session, HR 875, and S 425 (for more on these bills see "The U.S. Food Supply: Pending Legislation HR 875, S 510") require food products to be tracked from their origins in fields or abroad partly in response to the increasing imports.

However some argue that tougher legislation will actually increase food imports. A 2006 report on farm economics suggests that for many food safety improvements, "[a]lthough farmers will bear the cost of changes on farms, costs may not be recovered from the consumers due to unwillingness to pay an extra premium for such food types, especially if cheaper products (perhaps from other EU or third countries) are available on the market."

According to S.M. Llaner ("New Pressures Force U.S. Farmers South of the Border"), who quotes Joe Horner, a University of Missouri dairy and beef economist, companies (perhaps particularly large ones) are putting more "'growth dollars into Latin America . . . There is labor availability, resource availability, and you don't have massive compliance issues like you have here.'"

Food importation is not new. Niko Besnier describes Polynesian messages sent by boat requesting specialty food from other islands in his study of Nukulaelae literacy practices, Literacy, Emotion and Authority: Reading and Writing on a Polynesian Atoll (1995; Cambridge University Press). However Besnier described Nukulaelae islanders "importing" foods which they themselves could not produce.

Mexican Corn: Farming Practices and N.A.F.T.A

In addition to increasing U.S. food imports, NAFTA increased Mexico's reliance on U.S.-produced corn. Some of the issues in Mexican corn importation (decline in 'protectionism,' lowering of prices, loss of genetic diversity, importation of genetically-engineered plants, and a need for more support for Mexican farmers' access to technology) may apply to other markets as they open to imports..

South African Orange Imports

Africa today is the world's second largest exporter of citrus, following Europe. More and more fresh oranges in the U.S. come from South Africa, thanks to AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act) which removes import tariffs from African countries. Oranges from South Africa's Western Cape unlike other South African oranges meet U.S. sanitary requirements, and thus make up 48% of all U.S. orange imports. They are sold as fruit or as juice, although the current trend is to process juice in the U.S. with home-grown oranges while bringing fresh oranges from the third world.

South African harvesting methods involve over-irrigation resulting in pollution and soil destruction, plus a reliance on slave and child labor according to Fairfood.org. South African orange cultivation practices may also include overripening which increases sugar content and decreases acidity, resulting in a loss of the "fresh orange" taste. Oranges that are shipped from far distances may also be varieties with thicker skins and less orange content.

Monsanto, a St. Louis-based corporaton which sells herbicides and seeds, particularly genetically modified seeds, is entrenched in South Africa particularly in the maize industry. However Monsanto is not currenlty heavily invested in oranges.

It's unclear that the pending food legislation can change South African production methods. However, signs in produce bins and food cases (and even labels on menu inserts) that indicate the source of food will enable consumers to make an informed choice when buying food imported from other countries.

Fish

84% of U.S. seafood was imported in 2009 according to the NOAA's FishWatch: U.S. Seafood Facts, with fresh and frozen shrimp, salmon, tuna, and crabs topping the list of seafood imports. China is the leading exporter of seafood to the U.S.

Chinese fish imports have been criticized for bacterial contamination and the use of illegal antimicrobial drugs. Other importers of fish to the U.S. have been criticized, like South Africa's orange growers, for labor practices. Traces of illegal drugs were discovered in Chinese fish in 2007, the year before the Chinese Salmonella outbreaks. Some fish harvesting practices associated with poor quality in imported fish – time from catch to port, temperature of ice – may improve over time. There is still another problem with imported fish: the time it takes to reach the U.S. seafood market: imported fish can hardly be fresh.

Third-world countries such as Thailand, with less regulated seafood markets, catch wild fish at a rate that far exceeds that in the first world. According to Joanne Friederick (2010; "Opportunity Awaits? U.S. Ripe for Sustainable Aquaculture, But Businesses Need to Get on Board"), the same is true for aquaculture (fish farming).

However according to Friederick a viable U.S. aquaculture industry is possible with the exisiting regulation. Friederick cites Dave Conley of the Aquaculture Communications Group: "'For consumers, manufacturers and suppliers concerned about sustainability and traceability, . . shipping . . . [fish] from Southeast Asia isn't as stable." Conley says that while the U.S.'s regulations are a hurdle, these are what provide safety and sustainability: "If you can trace it from the egg to the plate, that should be a bonus to consumers.'"

According to the NOAA's Fish Watch: U.S. Seafood Facts, the U.S. has invested less in aquaculture than have third-world countries. The high cost of U.S. labor may also be a factor according to Joanne Friederick.

Resources

El-Hadi, M. Yahia. "Postharvest Handling of Mango." 1998; retrieved 2010.

Huffman, Mark. "FDA Detains Some Chinese Seafood Imports: Levels of Toxins Not High Enough for Recall." Consumer Affairs. 2007/07/28; retrieved 2010.

Nadal, Alejandro. "Mexican Corn: Genetic Variability and Trade Liberalisation." Working Paper. Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University. Retrieved 2010.