Local markets are one of the more quintessential Colombian scenes. Strolling through one, a visitor will find colorful and juicy fruits, aromatic species and herbs, fresh produce and diary. Due to its tropical location, Colombia is privileged to be able to produce these goods all year long. But today most of these products come from abroad. In Bogota's Corabastos, the largest wholesale market in Colombia and second-largest in Latin America, it is hard to find the label "Product of Colombia."
Beans, lentils and chickpeas come from Canada and the United States. Canned sardines and tuna are products of Ecuador and Peru. Apples, prunes, cherries, and peaches arrive from the U.S and Chile. Garlic and onions are from Japan and Mexico.
Even bocachico and bagre, two landmark fishes from the Magdalena River, now come from Argentina and Vietnam. Even coffee, Colombia's most famous export and international trademark, is imported.
The picture is worsening for local producers. Last week the government revealed that the country’s food imports climbed 52 percent in the first trimester of 2012 versus the same period last year—from 253 tons to 385 tons. The most dramatic rise in imports included milk, whey and dairy products, skyrocketing 543 percent. Sugar imports jumped by 217 percent.
Why is this happening? Not even local officials seem to know. Luis Fernando Salcedo, head of the Cámara Gremial de la Leche, a local daily producers’ guild, told the Colombian business newspaper Portafolio, “I don’t have any explanation for this increase,” adding, “My guess is that the Dirección de Impuestos y Aduanas Nacionales [Colombia’s customs administration] is not controlling the approved import quotas."
Juan Camilo Restrepo, minister of agriculture, recognized that these are, in part, the results of free-trade agreements (FTAs) with countries such as Chile, Canada and the Mercosur bloc. In response, he announced measures to mitigate the effects: “The Agriculture Ministry will search every last crevice of the free-trade agreement to see how we can prevent excessive imports of whey that will hurt producers in general and the Colombian dairy industry.”
Although the amount of food imports is scandalously high for a country with vast and rich productive land, they could still climb higher. Last month, a new FTA with the United States—the world’s largest exporter of whey—took effect. Colombian companies, which typically compete with U.S. dairy firms, will surely be on the losing end of this FTA. The FTA eliminates tariffs for U.S. whey products—previously set at 40 percent to 94 percent—as well as erases import quotas that had been in place. Now U.S. goods can flood the country without restriction. Officials and experts are concerned about how local Colombian producers will compete with the U.S. agriculture industry, one of the most subsidized in the world.
While some countries have placed food security as a top priority, Colombia seems to be delegating its food supplies—once locally harvested—to other countries. This is a risky bet in an overpopulated world where access to food and land will become a huge challenge in the coming decades. Today, securing food is probably as strategic as having oil reserves or keeping a nuclear warhead.
Now that the U.S.-Colombia FTA has entered into force we will now be able to measure the price that Colombia’s food industry has paid—and whether the agriculture ministry’s plan to offset potential losses bears any fruit.
Lorenzo Morales is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a professor at the Center for Journalism Studies at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, and is also a journalist currently funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to focus on the Colombian mining industry.