In 1993 France instituted the European Banana Regime placing quotas on banana imports from outside of their trade preference agreements with Europe’s old colonial trading partners, the African, Caribbean and Pacific nations. The big losers were Latin American farmers.
Germany, joining the European Union in 1987, and with no historical colonies to protect, was suddenly restricted from importing (to them) cheaper, tastier and larger bananas from Latin America in favour of the ACP imports. The case went to GATT (now the World Trade Organisation).
France declared that they were simply preventing toxic products from entering their market; citing evidence that Costa Rica used harmful pesticides and degraded the environment through their agricultural practices. That Costa Rica was improving its farming techniques, and that the ACP countries were even worse than Latin America was moot.
It was flagrant protectionism and resulted in years of jokes about France banning bananas based on their curvature.
Protection of free speech is seen as sanctified (it can be available but you donâ€™t have to listen to it) but commercial protectionism is still popular (we donâ€™t even want to know it exists). And protectionism turns up in unusual places.
When US lobster fishermen â€“ after years of overfishing â€“ complained that Chinese farmed lobster were putting them out of business, US congressmen acted quickly to declare China guilty of dumping and to levy huge duties on imported lobster.
Imported foods are particularly aggressively targeted for protectionism. Firstly, because theyâ€™re an easy target to stimulate local fears, and, secondly, because emerging markets frequently only have competitive advantages in primary industries like agriculture or basic manufacturing.
Instead of seeing developing nations as being further back along the development pathway, rich nations like to hold them to the same standards to which they (on paper) hold themselves.
This has seen a plethora of moves that support Japanese rice farmers, all French agriculture, and corn and cotton farmers in the US. The very products that would most assist the development of poor nations. Tax-payers in the rich world prefer to keep poor nations in permanent need of charity and aid (so that they can drive around in fancy off-road vehicles while lording it over the neglected victims around them) than to trade with them.
Not that poor nations have anything to be proud of either. Self-imposed red-tape and excise taxes (on goods not even manufactured locally) dramatically increase costs in poor countries as well. Kenya, which doesnâ€™t make mosquito nets, used to levy a 600% tax on imported nets ensuring that the cheapest prevention for malaria is out of reach of the poor.
Now we have Melamine.
Some of the loudest voices responding to this crisis have called for a ban on imports from China. That is counter-productive.
China is not singling the US out in some processed-foods act of terrorism; they feed this stuff to their own people as well. Their attitude to life is just different.
I would suggest that a more measured, long-term, and sustainable response would be an opt-in health system. Simply demand of your own companies that they must comply with local health rules, be they CE or ANSI or even HACCP. And that this must apply to their entire value chain. The real culprits here are corporations who â€“ knowing that the deal was too good to be true â€“ never looked at their inputs to assess whether or not they were safe for consumption.
Consumers can declare their allegiance at the till: are you willing to pay more for appropriately certified products; or do you wish to sacrifice safety for price?
Donâ€™t blame China â€“ they just sold you what you wanted. Caveat emptor.