I read something heartfelt and damning today that reminded me of stories my Dad used to tell. Today would have been his 78th birthday, but the Alzheimer’s finally got him just after his 77th. Mr. Touré and Mr. Compaoré, the authors of that article, are the Presidents, respectively, of Mali and Burkina Faso. Most readers will know little of these countries except that they are African and poor; their article explains one of the reasons they stay poor, and the remarkably simple and painless way we could make that problem go away.

There’s no nice way to say this: The world’s richest countries are deliberately, and as a matter of policy, promoting poverty and starvation in the world’s poorest countries. Here’s how I found out about it. My Dad was a farm boy who got his Ph.D. in Agriculture, specializing in Crop Production and Plant Breeding. He spent his working life in the Third World: Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Tanzania, and Zambia (in that order). In his African postings, he was working on bringing lessons from the “Green Revolution” to African food production.

Grow It, Can’t Sell It · When we talked about it, he would mention two big problems. The first was that some modern agricultural techniques just didn’t work that well in African conditions, so they had to learn as they taught. The more serious problem was that once they got some wheat production going, they discovered they couldn’t sell it, because the imported wheat from the developed world was cheaper. Cheaper, not because of the actual cost of production, but cheaper because rich-country governments throw subsidies by the bucketload at their own agriculture sectors.

Messrs. Touré and Compaoré have numbers: “In the period from 2001 to 2002, America’s 25,000 cotton farmers received more in subsidies—some $3 billion—than the entire economic output of Burkina Faso, where two million people depend on cotton.”

Their whole article focuses on cotton, but the same pattern occurs across the spectrum of agriculture. This is craziness, bad craziness; those countries in Africa have warm climates, lots of sunshine, and cheap (starving in some cases) labour. We should bloody well be buying cotton and wheat and butter from them, not the other way around, saving ourselves big money while helping them on the long hard climb out of poverty.

How Did It Happen? · All over the Western world, people living in the country have bigger heavier votes than those in the cities. This is partly due to the electoral structures lagging behind the huge, steady shift of population from farm to city in recent generations. But it’s also a matter of fairness; there are so few people left on the farm that if electoral weight was distributed purely on the basis of population, they’d be cut out of the system almost entirely.

But the effect is, when politicians are looking for a way to buy elections, throwing money at the farm sector is a remarkably efficient way to do it on a cost-per-vote basis.

Lethal Sentimentality · But there’s more to it than that; in the European Union and North America, the lobbyists for farm subsidies play the nostalgia card, imploring us to do what it takes to keep a way of life from vanishing. This plays on the fact that quite a few people have a sort of vague urban angst and think that somehow the honest farmer deserves special treatment. My own mother, a resident of Saskatchewan, has become quite heated when I suggest that we should drop all agricultural subsidies tomorrow and if the Prairies empty, then they empty. “Are you willing to toss a whole profession on the trash-heap?” she demands.

Well, you know, it happens. Buggy-whip makers, data-entry clerks, and stenographers are all distinguished by their absence these days. I don’t see why farming, as a profession, deserves to be protected when others aren’t.

The Ugly Side · Maybe it’s that I know a little too much about farming; I’ve lived on a farm and have farms in the family. There’s nothing sentimental or heart-warming about modern industrial agriculture, and a high proportion of the Western world’s subsidies go straight to large corporations, not to individual farmers. But corporate or individual, the farming business these days—in particular animal farming—is more horrifying than heart-warming. Animals dosed with antibiotics as weight-gain agents, fed with the rendered flesh of other animals, crowded and stressed past the possibility of health (those antibiotics let you push harder). All this is regulated of course, and the farmers push right up to the very edge of what the rules allow, and beyond. I have seen this.

I’m a little closer to the biz than most city-dwillers, and I’m sorry, pouring money into it while potentially cheaper producers are stuck in starvation in the third world seems to me like unadulterated evil.

The pro-subsidy arguments can get weird. I remember a conversation with a Swiss friend—they subsidize like crazy too—and he explained to me that if they stopped coddling the farmers, there’d be nobody left to take care of those lovely mountain valleys. Hmm, it seems to me that those valleys were there well before Homo Sapiens and are likely to survive us, and actually I suspect that they will recover faster than we expect from the collatoral environmental damage from Agribusiness.

Going Hungry? · The single silliest argument for going on shoveling money into agriculture is the notion that we need to be self-sufficient in food. Hmm, last time I checked we weren’t self-sufficient in cars or oil or music or wine or cameras, and we manage to get along. Why is food so special? We’re living in a capitalist economy, which has its drawbacks, but also has the huge advantage that if something is needed but isn’t being produced, someone will start producing it.

So, What Happens? · What would happen if the rich part of the world abolished agricultural subsidies and trade barriers tomorrow? There’s only one sane answer: we don’t know. The history of trade liberalization has seen some industries vanish with their protective barriers, and others innovate and prosper.

I suspect that there’s a huge market for agriculture that focuses on quality, flavor, and purity. When was the last time you bought a tomato in a supermarket that you could actually taste, and would you pay more for one? Here in Vancouver, which is not that large a city, there are a dozen different organic-foods and quality-foods outlets, all apparently doing just fine. Yes, the stuff they sell costs more than at the supermarket, but then again it tastes better.

And if the industry did shrink, and some parts of the Prairie went back to the eternally-waving grasses, and some valleys in Switzerland were filled in by forests; well, would that be such a bad thing? Particularly if at the same time the African basket-cases were struggling from the ground to their knees and maybe their feet, and we were paying less for commodity foods at the supermarket, and saving a few bucks on taxes.

What’s happening now is evil, just evil.

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July 11, 2003
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