America’s Two Faces at Trade Meeting

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.

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