Opponents unite to decry US farm subsidies

by Emad Mekay

WASHINGTON: Proponents of free trade and fair trade alike decried on 13 May legislation giving US farmers $190 billion in subsidies over the coming 10 years, saying the move would hurt poor farmers around the world.

“It is indeed a sad day for world farmers,” said a World Bank official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This is surely a step backward.” The Bank has urged an end to agricultural subsidies in rich nations, saying these hinder exports from developing nations.

The legislation, signed on 13 May by US President George W. Bush, represents an 80% increase in certain farm subsidies. The new bill provides US farmers with secure proceeds by increasing price supports for wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and cotton. The bill would also bolster subsidies for mohair, honey, and wool while creating new ones for lentils, peanuts, dry pea, chickpeas and milk. Unlike other farm bills, the latest one expands subsidies to almost all US growers, not only the big producers.

“For any amount of money we put into our farmers’ hands, other world farmers become disadvantaged,” said Niel Ritchie, national organizer with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). “The US has gone beyond everything it called for in trade talks for less restrictive trade systems.”

The new injection of funds could depress world farm product prices, making imports cheaper than homegrown products in the developing world and ultimately forcing local farmers out of business, analysts said.

Around 25% of US farm income comes from exports.

The US legislation has already met with some protest from Australia, Brazil, New Zealand and other trade competitors. The European Union, itself among the biggest subsidizers of agricultural products, has reportedly said it might challenge the US subsidies at the WTO.

At a signing ceremony for the legislation, Bush said he was trying to further open markets for US products but made no reference to foreign access to US markets. “We want to be selling our beef and our corn and our beans to people around the world who need to eat. My administration is working hard to open up markets,” he said.

[According to US media reports, Bush chose a morning time slot to sign the bill at the White House, so that it would be too late for the morning news programmes and too early for evening newscasts, to avoid public attention to the contradictions between his free-trade rhetoric and the protectionist subsidies in the law.]

The Bush administration, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO have pressed developing countries to open their economies and drop tariff and non-tariff barriers for goods from wealthy nations.

The administration, however, has not heeded appeals by the international institutions and supporters of developing countries to ditch its subsidies and to give developing nations greater access to lucrative US markets.

World Bank data indicate that cotton exporters in West and Central Africa would see their revenues swell by $250 million per year if the US - the world’s biggest cotton producer - stopped subsidizing domestic production.

The non-governmental group Oxfam International, in a report in April, singled out US farm subsidies as a blatant form of protectionism and said they were worth one-fourth of total US farm output.

The Bank says that cotton subsidies paid by just eight of the world’s richest nations amounted to $5.4 billion in the 1998/99 crop season, with the US accounting for more than $2 billion of this total. Such subsidies have driven down world cotton prices to nearly one-third of their peak level of the mid-1990s.

Some analysts suggested the bill would do most damage to the credibility of free-trade talks begun last year at the WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar. The bill “may not yet have killed the new round of trade negotiations, but has made even less credible the claims about a ‘development agenda’ at Doha,” said Chakravarthi Raghavan, a veteran Geneva-based trade analyst.

Others attributed Bush’s willingness to risk setbacks in global trade talks - and to add the cost of the subsidies to a projected $100 billion budget deficit - to election-year domestic politics.

Farm states including Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri will be important to the outcome of Congressional elections later this year - elections in which Bush’s Republican Party hopes to regain control of the US Senate, said Ritchie.

“Both the US and the Soviet Union tried to give their populations cheap food during the Cold War,” said Ritchie. “The little secret behind this farm bill is that cheap food keeps the lid on social unrest.” (IPS)                                                    

From TWE No. 280 (1-15 May 2002)