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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2003
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Ways & Means

Big Pigs at the Trough

The worst agriculture policy money can buy

by Carl Pope

Ask me to list the top ten environmental sins of the Bush administration and I’m stumped. How do you rank clearcutting ancient forests, handing out licenses to pollute, and total disregard for the future? But ask me to name the single most colossally bad policy and it’s easy: the Farm Bill of 2002.

Part of the tragedy of the Farm Bill is its lost promise. Agriculture secretary Ann Veneman actually started the Bush administration out on the same progressive path as that of Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who proposed legislation focused on stabilizing rural livelihoods, enhancing rural environments, and ending crop subsidies.

But before long Veneman and Lugar’s vision was hijacked by the usual agribusiness interests, and we ended up instead with a bloated grotesquerie of subsidies totaling $180 billion. The largest 10 percent of "farmers" like Cargill and J. G. Boswell will continue to receive 70 percent of that sum. The bill’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, first designed to help farmers protect drinking water, was turned into a multibillion-dollar giveaway enabling welfare ranchers to expand their huge factory feeding operations at public expense, resulting in the pollution of drinking water. The net effect is that the taxpayers will finance Big Corn, Big Pig, Big Cotton, and their big brethren in driving the remaining family farmers out of business.

The United States is exporting these same perverse incentives as "agricultural free trade," via the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization. The European Union has its own set. These pacts allow rich nations to subsidize their favored farms: large in the United States, small in Europe. Thus U.S. corn and French wheat—and the livestock fed with these grains—are overproduced, and after the citizens of either country eat all the burgers or baguettes they can, the excess is dumped abroad. Small Polish farmers can’t compete—let alone Mexican and African farmers. What "free trade" means for them is that they can’t limit the West’s bargain-basement imports. Much of southern and eastern Africa, for example, is a livestock belt; its natural path to prosperity would be to follow the example of 19th-century Argentina (or Texas)—raising cattle for the industrialized world. But African herdsmen don’t stand a chance when, as United Nations Development Programme administrator Mark Malloch Brown points out, "every European cow is getting a $3-a-day subsidy, whereas 40 percent of Africans live on less than $1 a day." In Mexico, since NAFTA was passed, one-third of pork producers have gone out of business, and hundreds of thousands of subsistence corn farmers have been forced off the land.

Where do all these displaced farmers go? First to Mexico’s sprawling cities. But since General Motors isn’t required to start paying taxes in Juárez when it moves a factory to Mexico and stops paying taxes in Detroit, these communities can’t afford schools, infrastructure, or clean water. So the next stop is across the border to the United States. The Wall Street Journal reports that because of the dumping of subsidized U.S. farm produce in Mexico, "millions of small farmers . . . end up north of the border." Once here, they provide cheap labor for the giant industrial farms that robbed them of a livelihood, and for the hellish confined-animal-feeding operations and meat-packing plants that pollute rural waterways, plague rural communities with their stench, and ultimately flood Mexican markets with cheap meat. Meanwhile, when workers in U.S. factories organize for better wages or environmental and health-and-safety standards, they are warned that their factories, and their jobs, might just move across the border.

The issue of agricultural subsidies by the wealthy nations came to a head at this fall’s global trade talks in Cancun, Mexico. African, Asian, and Latin American agricultural producers argued that trade could not be free when farmers in the rich nations are paid to dump their cotton, corn, and soybeans in the Third World, while farmers in poor nations face huge tariffs on their sugar, orange juice, and rice. When Europe and the United States suggested that poverty-stricken African cotton farmers simply grow another crop, the Cancun talks abruptly collapsed.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Within the European Union, trade agreements between member nations have been designed to generate a cycle of higher wages and environmental standards. (European enlightenment, however, stops at Gibraltar; EU farm subsidies are actually worse for the Third World than U.S. ones.) NAFTA could have been designed with built-in incentives to clean up the border zone, now the world’s longest toxic waste dump. As workers in Mexican factories become more productive, they could have been guaranteed the right to organize for higher wages. As those factories generate profits for their owners, they could have been taxed to pay for sewers, clean water, and hazardous-waste treatment.

If we have $180 billion to invest in rural America, why not put some of it toward the production of clean water, wildlife habitat, and wind power? Initiatives like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program could be restored to their original purpose and original beneficiaries—family farmers who need help cleaning up small-scale pollution. A real Farm Bill could support our best instead of encouraging our worst.


Carl Pope is Sierra Club executive director. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.

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