Wed | Aug 17, 2022

Alfred Dawes | Scrubinsky’s garden and the fallacy of food security

Published:Sunday | July 3, 2022 | 12:06 AM

We will call him Professor Scrubinsky. A professor of economics at a prestigious university, he still finds time to raise what are possibly the world’s most expensive tomatoes in his backyard garden. In a chance meeting with the professor, we...

We will call him Professor Scrubinsky. A professor of economics at a prestigious university, he still finds time to raise what are possibly the world’s most expensive tomatoes in his backyard garden. In a chance meeting with the professor, we chatted at length about the looming food crisis stemming from the war in Ukraine. Here is how he saw the calls for Jamaica to eat what we grow and reduce our dependence on food imports.

“It is a heavy head that makes the decision to choose populism over practicality. Many who are calling for food independence have not thought through the repercussions of such a move.

“If a community excels at making light fixtures for a viable export market, should they eat light bulbs? Apply brakes to that activity. They need others to feed them while they focus on what they do best. Even if a community produces its own food, at some point everyone gets tired of ham and omelettes. They crave a better duo or better yet, a très. This is the natural history of human consumption, to want greater variety.”

“It is interesting that whenever it comes to tariffs and the importation of food, people tend to gravitate to the negative effects on producers. What about the consumer? What are the arguments for emphasising the impact on producers relative to consumers? If you need tariffs to keep your business afloat, then maybe you are in the wrong business. Might as well be a vendor selling CDs on Back Road. The time of the Millerites is over and now common sense must shine.”

“Let us think about it this way. Suppose the USA wants to subsidise chicken for Jamaican consumers, that is, American taxpayers must pony up money to cover the cost of chicken that Jamaicans get to consume when we import it. When the USA or China subsidise one of their local industries, that subsidy must be paid for by someone. You must state your preferences and how much you’re willing to pay to see that preferred outcome. How much are we willing to pay as a society for the blockage of imports and food security? How much are we willing to pay as a society for the chance that a given sector will become globally competitive? Or, should the cost of this be distributed between the producer class and consumer class?”

SUBSIDISING NOT A JOKE

“The idea of subsidising certain sectors for security reasons is not a joke. Think about the Germany Russia Ukraine debacle at the moment. The sanctions meant to cripple Russia are bringing Russian-natural-gas-dependent Germany to its manufacturing knees.”

“There is a simple way to look at the import versus produce yourself scenario. Start with yourself, and ask why is it that I didn’t build my own car, my own clothes, or grow my own food. Then expand that to the community. Why is it that my community doesn’t produce everything it consumes? Then expand that to your parish, then to your county, and so on. Everyone generally accepts this idea once it is limited to the imaginary line that we all call a country. In bigger countries like the USA, support started to wane once you got to imaginary lines called states, but overall they all support the idea as long as you are talking about made in the USA.”

“So what is so special about imaginary lines called countries? There are several things. One is security, broadly defined to include defence, food and so on. The perfect example of defence is what is happening in Europe now. Another is economic security which politicians view as jobs. However, this argument is generally weaker. Just about every effort to protect an industry will benefit the producer at the expense of the consumer. I am for these protections as long as both sides are considered and the country makes an informed decision about the price they are willing to pay for economic security, aka jobs.”

“Who will pay that price is more important as free trade will hurt some and benefit others. Just as protectionist policies will hurt someone and benefit others, so is the question of which one has a higher benefit for the society. Not the net benefit for each individual, but the society on a whole. The other thing to consider is that these costs and benefits exit over time, so you cannot only look at the people who are around today. You must consider those net benefits over multiple generations. A particular decision on trade may destroy my life but would benefit my kids immensely. On the flip side, what may benefit me in terms of cheap imports saving me money may destroy the local industries that would have been the employers of my children.”

The discussion is a lot more complex than what is currently taking place in the public space. Professor Scrubinsky is of the view that emotions, especially national pride, ought to be removed from the equation. The irony of his position, however, resides in his “farm”. He has spent over US$3,000 and has so far reaped four tomatoes that a maggot would turn their nose up at. Based on the input costs, those are probably the most expensive tomatoes ever grown. As for why he persists with his clearly blackened thumb is a mystery for the ages. Maybe the goodly professor is right, and maybe he ought to be reading the literature he recommends to others, because logic and emotional attachment to an idea seldom align.

- Dr Alfred Dawes is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, CEO of Windsor Wellness Centre. Follow him on Twitter @dr_aldawes. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and adawes@ilapmedical.com.