Despite the increasing globalization of agriculture, it’s not often that food makes it onto a “top imports” list. That’s partly because of cost — it would take a lot of tomatoes to come close to the import value of a car engine — and partly because a lot of U.S. policies still give preference to farmers and agribusiness at home.
Still, the U.S. imports a fair amount of food from its neighbors Mexico and Canada, including $1.8 billion worth of Mexican tomatoes and $1.3 billion worth of avocados. Americans also eat a large amount of meat from both countries.
In relative terms, Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any other country. But consumers who’ve come to expect a low grocery bill are unlikely to take kindly to increases. Last year’s avocado shortage brought prices up to $3 apiece for a large avocado in some places. (And many restaurants, unwilling to deal with the high cost, stopped offering them for a short time.)
A border tariff wouldn’t cause the price to rise so dramatically, but 20 percent above typical costs could have consumers paying $2 per avocado, or $3.60 a pound for organic tomatoes (on sale!) or $5 a pound for ground beef.
If the U.S. tariffs were to equally apply to our northern neighbor, a packet of smoked Canadian salmon could run consumers $30 a pound.
It’s likely some multinational corporations will be able to shift production to the U.S., but many products U.S. consumers have come to expect simply grow better across the border. “There’s just less stuff that can be grown here as effectively as in Mexico,” said the University of Michigan’s Bleakley. “The best substitute we have for Mexican dirt is dirt in California, and that’s going to be tough to scale up if California continues with its water crisis.”
Not to mention that the costs of U.S. labor could increase food prices even beyond what a border tax would, if President Trump carries through his promise of deporting large numbers of undocumented immigrants.