There are many reasons for free-market advocates to be unhappy about current affairs. With numerous pieces of legislation being proposed to put shackles on our economy, it can be quite easy to take a pessimistic outlook on the present state of free markets. But sometimes to be optimistic you just need to look for the silver lining on otherwise dark clouds. Today’s dark cloud: news sources are reporting that a widespread outbreak of blight, the mold responsible for the Irish Potato Famine, is hitting the East Coast hard right now. The silver lining: because of entrepreneurial innovations and trade made possible through the open market, what would have been a major crisis 100 years ago is now a minor inconvenience to home gardeners.
Due to cooler than average temperatures and rainy conditions, the mold known as late-blight has taken hold and spread across the Northeast. The mold spreads spores that kill infected plants, generally those of the nightshade variety like tomatoes and potatoes. In the 1840s, late-blight struck Ireland’s main source of food –potatoes- and caused millions to starve and millions more to emigrate. So why not be afraid of the same thing happening here today in the U.S.? Why aren’t major news stations running this story 24/7 and interviewing experts on how to solve this crisis?
Mainly there is little to worry about because free markets work. While food markets have been regulated, they still have been free enough to encourage innovation in food technology and trade with other nations. Due to the profit motive driving entrepreneurial activity there have been many advances in biotechnology that have helped develop crops that can withstand diseases like blight. Genetically-engineered foods that are resistant to viruses, fungi, and disease are now available on the market.
Furthermore, despite some barriers, international trade still exists for food. The international food market is diverse and allows for different foods to come from many different sources. It is nothing short of amazing that - because of free trade- you can buy fresh produce like strawberries year round even if they are out of season in your hemisphere. If we were totally independent nationally for our sources of food, an outbreak of blight like this could very well be a huge crisis. If, as some environmentalists propose, we were all only able to purchase locally-grown produce then blight could be regionally devastating. Luckily, we are not restricted to only buying food from our home regions and can trade with other nations. If blight were somehow to cripple East Coast food production, while highly inconvenient and costly, food could be imported from other regions or countries.
Although many home gardeners will have problems with their tomato plants this summer, the average American will not notice any differences in everyday life. While there are many problems facing advocates of free markets, worrying about blight-induced famine should not be one of them. It can be easy to get caught up in defending open markets and to forget the unseen benefits that they constantly provide. So this summer, be sure to thank the process of free exchange as you eat non-blighted potatoes and tomatoes.