Do you also have to quit trading goods and services with people in other countries?
A couple of academics think so. They’ve put forth a bold thesis: Free trade makes you fat.
Their opinions, however, are thin on logic.
Here’s the skinny: Writing in a journal called Globalization and Health, Anne Marie Thow of the University of Sydney in Australia and Corinna Hawkes of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil warn of cross-border economic activity.
“The policies of trade liberalization in Central American countries over the past two decades, particularly in relation to the United States, have implications for the health of the region,” they write. “Specifically, they have been … associated with rising rates of obesity and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.”
So it’s not merely that free trade makes you fat. Thow and Hawkes think that free trade makes you fat and then you die.
In parts of the developing world, a major concern continues to be people who are malnourished and starving to death. Now we’re apparently supposed to worry that some, because of free trade, are eating too much.
I disagree: Free trade is not a devil’s bargain, but a positive good.
It’s like that old saying: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you. In other words, if you look hard enough, you can always find something to worry about.
Thow and Hawkes are determined to find any excuse to grumble. They point out that international trade has provided Central Americans with access to a wide diversity of eating choices. Tariff reductions have made this possible. As the authors report, average duties in Central America dropped from 45 percent in 1985 to just 6 percent in 2000. In more recent years, the implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement has helped U.S. farmers increase their market share in these nations.
When our government approves free-trade pacts, this is precisely what’s supposed to happen: We gain new advantages in selling what we produce. These opportunities are especially important in times of economic hardship. They demonstrate why we should pursue trade deals with Colombia and Panama, neighbors of the CAFTA countries.
As an added benefit, trade liberalization boosts incomes, which means that our partners become better able to buy made-in-America goods and services.
I’m all for protecting waist lines, but not for what might be called “waist-line protectionism.” Yet this seems to be what Thow and Hawkes really want: trade policies that prevent Central Americans from purchasing certain kinds of food and ingredients from the United States. They single out “fats, animal products, and sweeteners” as leading causes of Central American health woes.
Instead of blaming free trade, Thow and Hawkes should call for educating consumers about proper nutrition and the need to exercise regularly. The key to good health is not to limit consumer choice and strangle economic freedom, but rather to encourage wise individual habits.
The good news is that in reality, free trade improves health over time, especially for people in developing countries. That’s the conclusion of Hamilton College researchers who studied data covering 219 countries during a 35-year period. They found that when poor countries trade across borders, their infant mortality rates go down and their life expectancies go up.
Open economies may allow the importation of more French fries, but they also permit access to healthy foods that contribute to well-balanced diets, plus medicines and vaccines. They facilitate knowledge transfers, too, as information about nutrition, disease prevention, and health administration spreads from advanced countries to the developing world.
Can poor nations ever become rich in isolation? Fat chance. Only through engagement with the wider world, especially via trade, do they prosper. That’s how they become wealthy–and healthy.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org