The United States already has too many food fights with its trading partners--over beef, bananas, you name it--yet Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is spoiling for another one. She wants the import of lemons, oranges and grapefruit from Argentina blocked to protect California growers from foreign competition. Imposing such a ban is a stupendously bad idea. Besides landing the United States in the middle of another trade war, the prohibition would make a mockery of Washington’s crusade to dismantle global barriers to food trade.
The ostensible reason for Boxer’s campaign is protection of the public and California citrus growers from insects and diseases such as citrus canker. She argues that although the four Argentine regions from which the citrus is to be imported may be free of disease, others aren’t and that’s risky. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the import only after six years of scientific testing and two years of regulation. Its decision should stand.
The USDA adopted its “regional” approvals five years ago at the behest of U.S. fruit growers, its chief beneficiaries. Without similar deals for U.S. exports, California citrus producers would be thrown out of foreign markets if, say, a single Florida orchard were infested with canker or Mexican fruit fly. Peach, nectarine and plum growers in the Central Valley have benefited hugely from the policy.
Boxer was lobbied for the protection by some California citrus growers, but not all producers agree. Sunkist Growers, a marketing cooperative that sells two-thirds of California and Arizona citrus crops, signed a deal to market the Argentine lemons. Florida, whose citrus production is eight times California’s, has no problems with the imports.
Moreover, for no better reason than to placate Boxer, the USDA has restricted the Argentine imports to 34 states in the northern tier of the U.S., delaying their shipment to California for four years.
With the dismantling of tariffs and quotas, health and public safety restrictions have become the chief barrier to food trade. That’s why Washington has led the battle for worldwide sanitary rules and why it challenges national restrictions that are not scientifically based. USDA testing shows that citrus from the four regions of Argentina poses no public health or agricultural risk.
Blocking the imports just as the first shipment is to arrive would leave U.S. credibility in tatters and invite retaliation. The Senate has approved Boxer’s measure; the House should see it for the protectionism it is and kill it.