The farm-subsidy scandal

Posted: Friday, January 12, 2001

This editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

There are many ways to think about the Clinton legacy, but one rather depressing angle is suggested by a remark in Britain last month (when) Clinton casually shattered the taboo on frank discussion of farming and the global order: "If the wealthiest countries ended our agricultural subsidies, leveling the playing field for the world's farmers, that alone would increase the income of developing countries by $20 billion a year," the president said.

This was Clinton at his most wonderful and infuriating. He broke the taboo, great; but not until he had one foot out of office. He knows the truth, yes; but during his eight years as president, he did nothing to act on it.

Federal farm subsidies are riddled with hypocrisies. During the Clinton years the United States spent an average of about $14 billion annually on propping up farmers, a considerable increase on the spending under former president George Bush. This extravagance is defended with rhetoric about the need to help poor family farmers, but the truth is that the bulk of it goes to large land holders, who use it to drive down prices and push small farms under. Moreover, the farm subsidies ... often damage the environment and consistently undermine the efforts of developing countries to follow Washington's economic prescriptions.

For at least two decades, American administrations have been telling developing countries to export their way out of poverty. Rather than rely on aid as a source of foreign exchange, developing nations should earn it by selling to consumers in rich countries... But even as the United States and other rich countries have preached this gospel, they have made it hard to follow. Tariffs and quotas have barred developing countries' farm products from rich markets. And farm subsidies in rich countries have kept world production higher and prices lower than they otherwise would be, hobbling poor countries' chances of making a living from agriculture.

The main reason for this scandal lies in politics. Even though agriculture accounts for less than 3 percent of the U.S. work force and only 5 percent or so in Japan and the European Union, farmers everywhere seem adept at holding politicians hostage. In the United States, agribusiness outdoes such rivals as the auto and chemical industry in handing out soft money to campaign committees.

President Clinton understood what this meant for developing countries yet did nothing about it. President-elect Bush has hinted at an understanding, saying that the case for free trade is "not just monetary but moral." We hope Bush will make a serious effort to translate words into actions.



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