The United States is a complicated country -- I don't pretend to understand it all. Why so many Americans seem to regularly vote against their own interests. Why Brittany Spears has become a cultural icon. Why strip malls were ever built. We?re a country full of contradictions -- boring and fascinating at the same time.
Whenever I travel abroad I routinely find myself cringing at how Americans are viewed. As I walk around outside the WTO convention center in Cancun -- I'm bombarded with the ugliness of our exported Spring Break silliness. Nightclubs have giant images of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jim Carrey as the Mask -- signs in English boast bikini contests and all you can drink for $10. It?s not surprising that many around the world see us as a country of excess -- and who can argue?
But if you have lived in the U.S. for any length of time you know that below the corporate-driven culture of excess is something more real, more genuine, and much more interesting. It?s a different America that?s found at the corner bar or local coffee house, on the front porch, and at kids? soccer games.
Inside the WTO, the US is getting lambasted for the subsidies we give to our farmers. Poor countries repeatedly charge that it is our massive (excessive) subsidies that put farmers around the world out of business. There is a powerful moral case to be made about how U.S. farm policy has devastated farmers and rural economies around the world. What we are doing is ethically unconscionable -- and not sustainable in the long term. But just as cultural impressions of the U.S. around the world tell only part of the picture, so does the criticism of our farm subsidies.
The reality is that U.S. farmers are getting crushed as well. In other words -- the agribusiness-driven farm/trade policy pushed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Trade Representative is hurting our own farmers, just as it hurts farmers around the world. In a nutshell, U.S. policy is designed to drive prices for major crops down. It has done that by taking away supply controls and allowing agribusiness to consolidate and increase its market power.
Prices have plummeted so low that U.S. farmers are now paid well below the cost of production -- often between 30 and 50 percent below. These crops then get exported at below the cost of production, which pushes the global price down and drives farmers around the world off the land. U.S. farm subsidies then kick in and help farmers regain some of their loss -- but usually not all. The result is a steady decline in smaller U.S. farms over the last decade, and the loss of tens of thousands of farms around the world.
Who benefits from the low prices? Agribusiness benefits directly because they now have low cost inputs for their various processing ventures. Large livestock feeding operations benefit because they now have cheap animal feed.
In Cancun -- the focus of attacks on U.S. farm policy has been on our subsidies. There is a belief that U.S. farmers are getting rich off of subsidies -- and without these subsidies production would go down, prices up and solve the crisis of dumping. Well intentioned governments and NGO's around the world have aggressively pushed this agenda in Cancun.
The problem is that they?re wrong, and the prescription they are pushing may well encourage the opposite -- a further decrease in prices. To understand U.S. agriculture you really have to spend some time in America?s heartland. What you?ll find is that when times are good farmers produce -- when times are bad, farmers produce. If subsidies were stripped away, farmers would do what they do best -- try to produce enough to stay on the farm. If they cannot stay on the farm -- they sell the land to neighboring farmers. The result would be a loss of family farmers, more large-scale farms with improved efficiency, and possibly more surplus production.
Without addressing the problems of over-supply coming out of the U.S., we can?t lift prices, and we can?t set a farm policy that benefits farmers around the world. Unfortunately, this discussion isn?t even on the table for negotiation in Cancun.
The agribusiness firms and the farm groups they represent are inside the U.S. trade delegation actively participating in the negotiations. But the real voice of the U.S. farmer is not. For example, National Family Farm Coalition President George Naylor, and Iowa corn and soybean farmer, is here in Cancun trying unsuccessfully to get contact, input and information to the U.S. trade delegation.
The agribusiness suits who huddle with the U.S. Trade Representative and are seen by countries around the world as the voice of U.S. agriculture don?t represent the American farmer any more than Brittany Spears represents the rich diversity of American culture.
Ben Lilliston is the communications director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.