fb - voice of agriculture
September 2003

Farm Bill Critics Tell Only Part of the Story

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

I'm beginning to believe there is never a closed season when it comes to attacks on U.S. farm policy. Purely out of self-interest, other countries routinely criticize U.S. farm programs. America's farmers, however, increasingly are finding it necessary to explain the merits of our farm programs to critics within our borders.

One of the latest editorial attacks on U.S. farm programs blamed them for low commodity prices around the world and persistent poverty in developing countries. Employing imagery ranging from a poor Filipino sharecropper boy to the abject poverty of a cotton farmer in Africa, the latest attack says U.S. farm programs are literally "killing" farmers in developing nations, and U.S. farmers "dump so much product on the market that it has driven down world prices."

So many of the images, however, simply don't hold water. U.S. cotton production has hovered around 17 million bales a year for the last decade, and the United States imports that same amount from other countries. Where, then, is this overproduction that U.S. cotton farmers are dumping onto the market? It doesn't exist.

Don't you hate when the facts get in the way of a good argument? But if one truly cares about improving economic and living conditions in the world's poorest countries, it is important to look at the whole problem and to deal in facts, not platitudes.

The Big Picture

In the area of farm subsidies, it's important to look at where the largest totals originate. Japan supported its farmers in 2001 to the tune of $3,960 per acre; the European Union provided $320 per acre; and the United States provided $49 per acre. No other major developed country comes close to the farm subsidy levels of Japan and the EU.

I don't think it is necessary to put U.S. agriculture, which provides jobs and economic activity across this country, out of business in order to support farmers in other nations. At the same time our government supports U.S. farmers through our farm program, it also provides billions of dollars in humanitarian aid.

Led by the Bush administration's trade team, the United States is leading the world toward true trade reform. The administration has proposed large reductions in trade-distorting subsidies, eliminating the huge disparities in countries' subsidy levels and eventually phasing out the subsidies altogether. We will not disarm unilaterally, but we are ready to trim our subsidies if other countries will do the same. The framework text signed by the EU and the U.S. was a positive sign heading into the WTO talks in Cancun, but we must remain vigilant so that the final details accomplish our trade goals.

Strengths, Weaknesses

Farmers from different nations around the world have their competitive strengths and weaknesses. Developing countries have lower labor and input costs and less government regulation than in the United States. The relative strength of the U.S. dollar also has made other countries' products cheaper.

But farmers in developing countries should have another advantage: the ability to produce drought-tolerant varieties of cotton and other commodities created through biotechnology. In arid parts of the world where crop losses and resulting famine are common, access to biotechnology could enable farmers to produce more food and crops to provide income. Until the EU lifts its ban on biotech imports, famished farmers in Africa and other developing regions will be afraid to use the technology for fear of being locked out of the European market. Compared to that net effect, I would say the impact they might feel from U.S. farm subsidies is negligible.

A Better Message

Some editorialists have chosen to blame U.S. farm subsidies alone for the woes of poor people in the developing world. They have chosen to ignore the many other factors involved. Why? Because it's easy – just find a message that fits your ideology and keep using it until it sticks.

The challenge for Farm Bureau and individual farmers is to continue repeating our message – one based on facts. Our message is based on supporting our own at the same time we reach out to others. It is a message of working together with developing countries to create a system of fair trade rules.

We will work with the Bush administration to continue delivering that message. And, while the administration drags other developed nations down that path of fairness, we will strive to correct the misinformation spread by those who would criticize what they so evidently do not understand.