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Current crisis demands a rethinking of globalization

Scapegoating aside, one of the top “after COVID” matters must certainly be rethinking the global relation with China.

Every country will have to find ways to reduce its interactions with the country, not only due to its mishandling of the current coronavirus and the ones before it, but because of what the crisis has shown as dangerous reliance on global supply chains.

In the big picture, we’ve long sacrificed jobs and investment to an untrustworthy, authoritarian regime that treats its own citizens as badly as it does the rest of the world. Offshoring, led by Western corporations intent on eroding domestic labour and capitalizing on China’s complete lack of protection for workers, safety, social good and the environment, has long been a problem. Now, along with repercussions for the country’s poor handling of the current outbreak – “The roots of the pandemic stem from the initial cover-up and mishandling of the spread of COVID-19 by CCP (Chinese Communist Party) authorities in Wuhan,” says an open letter signed by more than a hundred experts and political figures – we have to think about bringing manufacturing home to ensure a more reliable source of essentials such as pharmaceuticals, protective gear and medical equipment, among a host of others.

High on that list is food security.

We’ve already become more concerned about where our food comes from, and the environmental impact of shipping it in from long distances. We want to support local farmers. And we’re worried about just how healthy the stuff is, especially processed food.

That’s increasingly the case as food industry companies tap overseas sources for cheaper inputs. As with many of the goods we buy, often that means China. The quality and treatment of the foodstuffs immediately becomes suspect, and federal laws aren’t overly helpful in protecting consumer interests, let alone our safety.

The connection to China isn’t always obvious to the average consumer. Much of what we buy is sold as “Product of Canada,” but is processed in China or contains ingredients from China.

Under Canadian law, the ingredients can come from anywhere in the world and still get a “Product of Canada” label. That’s because “Product of Canada” only means that at least 51 per cent of manufacturing costs were incurred in Canada. Apple juice concentrate from China, for instance, can be mixed here, packaged and declared Canadian made, and you and I are none the wiser.

In such cases, the product flies in the face of a growing desire to buy food as locally as possible. The practice also hides from consumers information that might lead them to choose another product because of safety concerns about goods from suspect parts of the globe. And when it comes to Chinese food products, we have every reason to be cautious, as food safety standards there are not consistent.

Governments have made some effort to recognize the current weaknesses. Just this week, for example, Ottawa announced $20 million in funding for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to enhance food inspection protocols. The money is intended for the CFIA to hire, train and equip additional staff (including recently retired CFIA inspectors and veterinarians) to conduct critical inspection activities, reassign staff from within the agency to focus on critical services, and work closer with industry and trading partners to minimize supply disruptions during this crisis.

Such measures are especially critical where imported food is concerned. Consumers are at risk both in China and in countries where Chinese food products end up, including Canada.

Beyond poor handling practices, the threat extends to environmental pollutants and the use of chemicals deemed unsafe here. There have been cases where such products have slipped by the CFIA.

In fact, the CFIA, as with consumer agencies monitoring for such things as lead in toys, relies on the manufacturers and importers to follow the rules: they’re just aren’t enough inspectors to cover all of the goods shipped to Canada. More than 400 million kilograms of food from China made its way to this country. The trend is upwards, as many companies opt for cheaper, even as Canadians say they’re concerned with quality and with buying local food from local farmers.

With a frequency that wasn’t seen from past imports, those Chinese-made goods are the subjects of health scares and product recalls. There’s a long list of unsafe toys (lead paint and other toxins, swallowing hazards) and even more dangerous foods (melamine, heavy metals, toxins). There have been scares involving toothpaste, pet food and unsafe tires.

Consumer groups have long advocated for governments to take a closer look at the rules governing the importation of Chinese-made goods. Right now, there are few real assurances that goods are safe.

There has been plenty of talk about offshore job losses as many companies set up shop in China. Add to that the environmental concerns due to that country’s lack of controls and the issue of buying items manufactured there becomes more than just the price tag. The question, then, is how much are willing to pay to buy from other sources?

With the decline of manufacturing and resultant job losses, there’s a growing awareness that shipping jobs overseas has a downside that far outweighs the plethora of cheap goods at Wal-Mart and the dollar store, retail locations almost synonymous with Chinese products.

More than just junky plastic trinkets, however, offshore locations are making more complex and value-added products, not to mention taking on the service jobs that are supposed to be the salvation of our economy.

Stop buying Chinese products and maybe we’ll have some impact on the future of manufacturing in this country.

In the end, it boils down to people voting with their wallets: Wal-Mart doesn’t appear to be in danger of closing any time soon. It might take some work and a few more dollars to wean ourselves from those boatloads of cheap goods.

Up until now, the federal government has taken no action, and multinational corporations care not one whit for what is right. Perhaps the current crisis will provoke changes that put us on a better path.

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