By Nicholas D. KristofNew York Times
July 5, 2002
J'accuse! I hate to condemn a colleague this way, but our tax dollars are going to pay an indolent New York journalist for not growing wheat on the West Coast.
Could there be a worse indictment of American agricultural policy, rendered even more scandalous by the new $180 billion farm bill signed by President Bush?
Actually, there is a worse indictment. By inflating farm subsidies even more, Congress and the Bush administration are impoverishing and occasionally killing Africans whom we claim to be trying to help.
Last week at the G-8 summit conference in Canada, Mr. Bush and other world leaders spoke piously about their desire to help Africa help itself. Earlier, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill traveled around Africa with Bono complaining about African governance (but in a compassionate sort of way).
Our compassion may be well meant, but it is also hypocritical. The U.S., Europe and Japan spend $350 billion each year on agricultural subsidies (seven times as much as global aid to poor countries), and this money creates gluts that lower commodity prices and erode the living standard of the world's poorest people.
"These subsidies are crippling Africa's chance to export its way out of poverty," said James Wolfensohn, the World Bank president, in a speech last month.
Mark Malloch Brown, the head of the United Nations Development Program, estimates that these farm subsidies cost poor countries about $50 billion a year in lost agricultural exports. By coincidence, that's about the same as the total of rich countries' aid to poor countries, so we take back with our left hand every cent we give with our right.
"It's holding down the prosperity of very poor people in Africa and elsewhere for very narrow, selfish interests of their own," Mr. Malloch Brown says of the rich world's agricultural policy.
It also seems a tad hypocritical of us to complain about governance in third-world countries when we allow tiny groups of farmers to hijack billion of dollars out of our taxes.
For example, the U.S. has only 25,000 cotton growers, but they are prosperous (with an average net worth of $800,000) and thus influential. So the U.S. spends $2 billion a year subsidizing them, and American production of cotton has almost doubled over the last 20 years â€¹ even though the U.S. is an inefficient, high-cost producer. The result is a glut that costs African countries $250 million each year, according to a World Bank study published in February.
And when a poor cotton farmer in West Africa goes bust because of our cotton subsidies, he has no savings to fall back on. Rather, he starves. He cannot afford medicine for his sick baby, and the child dies. He cannot afford a midwife when his wife is pregnant, and so she is crippled in childbirth. He cannot afford worming medication for his children, and so they grow anemic and do poorly in school â€¹ and cannot concentrate when Americans lecture them about their poor governance.
Back to the freeloading journalist, whom I'll rat on in a moment. He defends himself by saying that his plot of farmland was put into a federal subsidy program by a previous owner. So he gets $588 each year for what rural America calls "farming the government, rather than farming the land."
Such absurdities â€¹ and particularly the latest farm bill, a transparent political payoff â€¹ accomplish nothing. I grew up in rural America, and if the farm bill revived small towns like Wapato, Ore., a hamlet that once flourished near my family's farm and has now completely disappeared, then I would be sympathetic. But the fact is that 60 percent of American farmers get no subsidies at all, and 47 percent of commodity payments go to large farms with average household incomes of $135,000.
The subsidies go overwhelmingly to farmers tilling the ground, not those raising livestock. When I was a kid, we raised sheep â€¹ a lousy idea, since fewer and fewer Americans eat lamb or wear wool. So in the absence of a good sheep subsidy, we bowed to market forces, and now the only sheep left on my parents' farm are a few family friends. That's the way a market economy is supposed to work.
The bottom line is that farm subsidies cripple Africa and go to people who don't really need them â€¹ like that grasping journalist who gets $588 a year for not growing wheat. Who is that person? Er, it's me.
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