Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Using quarantine as a barrier to trade

I have been meaning to write about using quarantine as a barrier to trade since Queensland’s banana crop was destroyed by cyclone Yasi last summer and prices at the supermarket shelf hit $14/kilo and more. It seems that leading economist Saul Eslake, and economist turned politician Andrew Leigh, have done the job of deciphering genuine concerns over importing disease, and rent seeking by protected producers.

Let us start with what Andrew had to say.

In fact, just about every trade barrier can be rewritten as a quarantine rule or a consumer protection law. Suppose Californian wine producers are complaining about competition from French Bordeaux. Left unchecked, US authorities could simply raise health concerns about Phylloxera, and ban French wines on quarantine grounds. Or imagine that British carmakers are struggling to compete with Malaysian hatchbacks. Without any international guidelines, there would be nothing to stop the UK from banning Malaysian small cars for reasons of safety.

To prevent competition laws and environmental rules from being used as backdoor protectionism, the WTO has two new treaties that require health, consumer and environmental regulations to be scientifically based. National regulations cannot discriminate against particular countries, and must not impede trade any more than necessary.

If a WTO member thinks that another country is breaking the global trade rules, it can take a case to the dispute panel. Australia has complained to the WTO on seven occasions (against the European Union, Hungary, India, Korea, and the United States). We’ve won five of these cases, including decisions in favour of our beef exporters to Korea and our lamb exporters to the US.

On the flipside, we’ve had ten cases brought against us (by Canada, the EU, New Zealand, the Philippines, Switzerland, and the US). We’ve lost three of these cases, including the New Zealand apples decision (the other two losses related to imports of salmon and automotive leather).

Andrew makes the solid points that quarantine and consumer protection is ‘back-door’ protectionism, and gives a good overview of the international legal framework around trade.

Saul Eslake takes different approach by discussing the price impacts on domestic consumers from this type of protection. He also highlighted that in the wake of cyclone Yasi, high banana prices were only helping banana growers whose crops weren’t destroyed, not those who actually lost their crops from the cyclone.

On the matter of importing diseases, he makes a point I have argued to many people in the past. How would diseases go from boxed-up fruit and vegetables arriving in city ports out to farms? How high is that risk? In Eslake’s words-

If bananas and other fruit or vegetables are imported into southern ports, such as Melbourne, Adelaide or Sydney, and are subject upon arrival to appropriate inspections, they are no more likely to spread diseases damaging to Australia's banana industry than the importation of cooked and packaged Canadian salmon has done to Tasmania's salmon industry (another example of protectionism masquerading as ''biosecurity'' where, unusually, commonsense and the interests of consumers ultimately prevailed).

To me the irony of the situation is that most of the crops now requiring protection from foreign pests are imported themselves, and could arguably be classified by an environmentalist as a foreign pest.

The other irony is that the countries that do have these diseases are also exporters and can produce the crop much cheaper than us.

The logical person would ask whether the potential costs from the pest or disease are greater than the benefits derived by consumers from cheaper food? If yes, then we should keep the quarantine restrictions. If no, we should drop them.

I am not trying to say here that all quarantine rules necessarily have greater benefits than there costs. But we have lost 3 out of ten cases brought against us by other WTO member, so if 30% of the quarantine rules can be dropped because their costs outweigh the benefits, that would be good for everyone in the long run.

1 comment:

  1. Hi

    its a tough call IMHO. On the one hand I believe strongly in the control of possible vectors for transfer of pathogens and the disruption of ecosystems due to increases in transfer of organisms which would previously have not had a chance to move between locations.

    However it is often the case that the mechanism of government takes advantage of the intention of these regulations to in effect prop up trade regulations or restrictions.

    This is a perversion of the meaning and intention of the regulations and (again IMHO) leads to general disregard of the importance of them.

    I have had personal engagement with the stupidity of these departmental regulations when I attempted to send unique easter chocolates from Scandinavia to my family and some blinkered dope chose to apply an interpretation that my food items were ornaments.

    so perhaps we should just accept that the activity of humans will wreak changes on the ecology and let it happen.