Wednesday, November 24, 2010

True Cost of Farm Subsidies

The United States Department of Agriculture provides both price guarantees and direct subsidies to farmers in the United States. The U.S. Agency for International Development provides aid to people worldwide, in part to alleviate the problem of hunger. In her article US Farming Subsidies, blogger Guari of  the beinformed journal provides the best explanation I have yet seen on the perverse connections between the two. Her bottom line is this: the amount of aid we give is exactly the amount of their wealth that we destroy.

Beginning in the 1940s, the Green Revolution exported the model of highly productive, research-centered agriculture from the United States and Western Europe to developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The purpose to decrease starvation and malnourishment by helping farmers to produce more food locally. In some places, this goal was reached and even exceeded, as famine-prone countries such as China eventually became food exporters. Some of the negative consequences stemmed from the expansion of monocultures in mainly tropical locations, with single crop species replacing intercropping and single varieties replacing mixed strains of a given species. This led to a heavy reliance on pesticides. Other negative consequences arose from the increased yields themselves, which were often supported by increased mechanization, increased use of artificial fertilizers, and increased demand for irrigation.

Throughout the Tropics, the net result of all this has been a consolidation of farmland and a steady increase of urbanization. Subsistence farming has been replaced by commercial farming at a much larger scale, and many urban dwellers are people who would have been food producers but have become food customers instead. In some situations, this might not have been such a bad thing. After all, most people I know are food customers. In combination with our own heavy subsidies and trade policies, however, this situation has been disastrous, because the farmers in developing countries are dependent on urban customers in their own countries who can now buy food more cheaply from the United States. This is hard to believe, but efficiency and subsidies make it all-too true.
As the film King Corn makes clear, subsidies that were meant to ensure food security in the United States contribute to poor health while enriching a small number of wealthy corporate farmers and flooding the market with corn, corn syrup, and other products that are already dangerously abundant. Blogger Guari continues the story, showing how the damage goes beyond our our tax bills, waistlines, and diabetes cases. The efficiency of U.S. agriculture combine with the subsidies to allow corn, wheat, and other basic grains much more cheaply than even the lowest-paid farmers working some of the cheapest land on the planet.

Because politicians from across the rather narrow Republican-Democrat spectrum in the United States have  become true believers in the superiority of "free markets," those rich farmers are now in direct competition with poor farmers worldwide. As she demonstrates, all of the money we give in foreign aid to farmers is lost through this unfair trade.  I put the phrase "free markets" in quotes because a single, critical piece is missing from the discourse. As told in the coffee film Black Gold, the United States and other rich countries define the term to the disadvantage of developing countries, forcing them to accept terms of trade that are neither free nor fair.

See a 2004 report from Amber Waves for a more detailed explanation of how this has impacted corn farmers in Mexico. I spent the summer of 1989 in the Valley of Puebla, where corn was first domesticated, and where corn farmers can no longer compete against federally-funded corporate farms in Iowa. A villager in Cholula will pay less to have corn shipped over 1,000 miles from a rich farmer than he would pay to get corn from a poor farmer he goes to church with every Sunday. This is what "free trade" has come to mean.

"Securing borders" would be much easier without the added pressure, but it is politically more expedient to fund the border wall and corporate farm subsidies than it is to reduce funding for both.

Thanks to Thetis Sammons of Food Fight fame for pointing out the subsidies article.

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