Plowed under

September 30, 2007

The U.S. is outsourcing its food supply. Imports have nearly doubled since 2001, and the big growth is not in foods that don't grow here - coffee, for instance, or bananas - but in crops that are American staples. The change raises questions about food safety, and about the wisdom of entrusting the nation's food security to overseas producers.

Consider garlic. The U.S. is one of the world's major garlic growers. It is also an important exporter of garlic. Yet American imports of garlic have been skyrocketing. From 38 million pounds in 1997, the U.S. imported 176 million pounds last year. Imported fresh garlic has more than tripled its share of the U.S. market, now accounting for 55.6 percent of sales.

Over the same period, the value of U.S. garlic production has fallen by more than a third, and the acreage devoted to garlic has dropped by nearly a quarter. American garlic growers are losing out to a supplier who can charge half what they do - China.

And garlic is just one example of the offshoring of American nutrition. About 20 percent of the food consumed here is now imported (80 percent of the seafood). And those numbers are trending in one direction only - up. A Mexican worker gets only $6 a day - but a Chinese worker earns just $2. The math is easy to do.

Can Americans trust Chinese garlic? Port inspections won't be enough, because the Food and Drug Administration is woefully ill-equipped to handle that. The FDA wants to prod importers to institute verifiable safe practices at Chinese (and other) producers - which is a sensible idea. It's a practice that has gone a long way toward improving the safety of food from Mexico.

But it would be foolish not to expand inspections to a reasonable level; a fee on imports could pay for that, as Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois suggested Friday. One percent of imports are inspected. Europe and Canada do much more.

Interestingly, the Chinese themselves severely restricted their garlic exports this summer, without explaining why; their government currently inspects every shipment going abroad. That's good for their American customers, but it's also a useful lesson in what governments can accomplish if they want to.

The bigger question is whether it's a smart idea for America to relinquish its ability to feed itself. Common sense suggests that the answer has to be no.

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