France, September 8, 2003, Cropchoice, NY Times:
Christian Vachier, the last sheep farmer in his small
commune north of here, is wondering whether his pastoral
life in the Lubéron mountains is about to end.
Halfway across the world, Dean Argotsinger, who raises
corn and soybeans on nearly 2,000 acres of land once
cultivated by his father and grandfather outside Denison,
Iowa, has the same worries.
Mr. Vachier grazes his flock on 36 acres of pasture
and sends them off in the summer to wild mountain meadows,
a land-intensive and expensive method underwritten by
checks from the European Union and the French government.
His lamb is never sold outside the region, much less
Mr. Argotsinger is a very different kind of farmer.
He considers himself modern and efficient. He uses chemical
fertilizers and receives more than $336,000 from the
government every four years and sells his grain in the
But both farmers worry that they will be the targets
when trade ministers from around the world meet in Cancún,
Mexico, on Wednesday to begin deciding which subsidies
to cut back in the wealthiest nations in order to lessen
the damage the subsidies inflict on poor farmers in
the developing world.
The world's wealthiest nations give more than $300
billion of subsidies to their farmers every year, more
than the gross national product of sub-Saharan Africa.
Those payments are now the biggest complaint of poor
"It's ridiculous that rich farmers are getting
richer and poor farmers are getting poorer," said
John Nagenda, a farmer in Uganda and adviser to President
Yoweri Museveni. "We are kept out of the world
market. When countries like America, Britain and France
subsidize their farmers, we get hurt."
Siphiwe Mkhize, agriculture attaché at the South
African Embassy in Washington, said: "We would
give up foreign aid if the farm subsidies were eliminated.
The subsidies give the rich-nation farmers the upper
hand in all markets, and we can't even compete in our
own markets, much less theirs."
Mr. Vachier, however, said, "Why should world
trade rules dictate whether French taxpayers can pay
me to preserve our way of life and protect our countryside?"
Though he has different views about world trade, Mr.
Argotsinger has similar complaints.
"The federal government made a promise to us farmers
in the farm bill last year and all at once they're telling
us the World Trade Organization can take that away from
us," he said at his Iowa farm.
From the hillside vineyards of Europe to the dense
cornfields of Middle America, dozens of farmers said
in interviews that they were anxiously awaiting the
outcome of the talks in Cancún, where the first
order of business is farm policy.
In the past decade, the top quarter of farmers in the
developed world have steadily gained most of the subsidies
— 70 percent in Europe and 90 percent in the United
States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development. Those payments allow industrial-size
farms to produce many more acres of crops than are needed
for domestic consumption, and they are sold overseas
at low, subsidized prices.
Farmers in developing markets cannot compete with the
cheap imports. They lose out in their own markets and
have little chance of exporting.
A recent American-European farm proposal disappointed
many developing nations. Seventeen developing nations
countered by asking the United States to make deeper
cuts in its subsidies and Europe to eliminate subsidies
that underwrite exports.
The U.S. and Europe: How Their Subsidies Differ
Subsidies began in times of hardship — during
the Depression in the United States, to help farmers
survive as their costs rose and market prices stagnated,
and after World War II in Europe, to encourage farmers
to increase food production and avert malnutrition.
But today Western countries are drowning in food, their
citizens more likely to suffer from obesity than starvation,
and the huge surpluses are sold cheaply overseas.
The American system — with farms 10 times larger
than those in Europe — has grown the most lopsided.
In 1995, the top 10 percent of American farmers received
55 percent of government subsidies; in 2002 their share
rose to 65 percent, according the Environmental Working
While Europe also gives more money to its larger farms,
it is slowly shifting to reward small farmers like Mr.
Vachier who raise expensive, high-quality food that
is rarely exported, subsidies that are considered harmless
to the developing world. "Cutting these subsidies
to the huge farmers in favor of the small farmers would
also help small farmers in the developing world,"
said Stefan Tangermann, author of the O.E.C.D. report.
Pascal Lamy, the top European trade official, said
the answer for European agriculture "is shifting
from quantity to quality." When the European Union
grows by 15 countries next year, farm subsidies will
be further diluted.
Philip Bloomer, director of advocacy at Oxfam, which
lobbies against farm subsidies, said that while Europe,
including France, is still among the worst offenders
in farm policy, it is slowly understanding that it has
"In Europe, we believe there is a glacial movement
in the right direction," said Mr. Bloomer. "In
the United States, there is a fairly rapid movement
in the wrong direction."
The United States openly embraces increased trade as
the answer for American agriculture, heavily subsidizing
the biggest farms in an industrialized system that generates
huge surpluses for export. Robert B. Zoellick, the United
States trade representative, boasts that one out of
every three acres in the United States is planted for
It is highly unlikely that either the United States
or Europe will offer the concessions needed to undo
the damage of the system.
"Our American subsidy system is a crime, it's
a sin, but we'll talk a good game and get away with
doing almost nothing until after the presidential election,"
said C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for
International Economics in Washington.
Agriculture is now one of the few sectors of the American
economy where the United States runs a trade surplus,
and American businesses that thrive on subsidized global
trade want to keep the subsidy system in place.
In the past decade, industrial-scale farmers have tipped
their allegiance decisively toward the Republican Party,
which supports the current system. Political contributions
from agribusiness jumped from $37 million in 1992 to
$53 million in 2002, with the Republicans' share rising
from 56 percent to 72 percent, according to figures
compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Those commercial companies were not disappointed when
President Bush signed into law last year a new farm
policy that increases permanent subsidies by $40 billion
a year, even though Mr. Zoellick had promised the developing
world that subsidies would be cut in this new round
of trade talks.
"Reducing these subsidies and removing agricultural
trade barriers is one of the most important things that
rich countries can do for millions of people to escape
poverty all over the world," said Ian Goldin, the
World Bank's vice president for external affairs. "It's
not an exaggeration to say that rich countries' agricultural
policies lead to starvation."
The Name of the Cheese: Defending a Way of Life
For Europeans like Jean-Pierre Boisson, mayor of Châteauneuf-du-Pape,
a small village in Provence, subsidies also represent
survival of a centuries-old way of life and of the kind
of traditional farming that produces the expensive,
high-quality wine, olive oil and meat for which his
region is known.
Europe's environmental programs receive a mandated
15 percent of the $46.3 billion in annual European farm
The farmers around Châteauneuf-du-Pape worry
that in Cancún, trade ministers with little understanding
of agriculture and its effect on a nation's food system
and countryside will cut the wrong programs.
Mayor Boisson is also watching carefully whether the
trade ministers adopt a universal respect for geographic
indicators, a form of copyright tying the name of a
food product to its region. Those labels guarantee the
authenticity of products like Roquefort cheese and grand
French wines; for farmers like Mr. Boisson, those labels
— and not government subsidies — ensure
Mr. Lamy, the European trade minister, has told colleagues
that if the World Trade Organization is willing to support
geographic indicators, he would discuss reducing export
Phillipe Mauguin, director of the French government's
Institute of Appellations of Origin, said the government
hoped that 20 percent of French produce would eventually
besold under a specialty labeling. France already sells
$18 billion in products protected by appellations of
"Without such labeling, there is zero protection
for local people, zero protection for local culture,"
said Mr. Mauguin.
An Industry Remade: The Passing of the Farmer
Iowans like Mr. Argotsinger know what it means to lose
the traditional farm way of life.
When the members of the Denison High School class of
1963 held their 40th reunion this summer, they counted
only one farmer among them. Over cold beers and enchiladas,
they guessed that at least 40 of the 108 men and women
in their class were either raised on a farm or spent
their summers on the farm of a close relative.
In one generation, they said, they became witnesses
to the remaking of American agriculture, which has been
turned upside down by globalization, altered federal
farm subsidies and the demands of the "big guys"
to make agriculture run on the principles of mass production.
"The subsidies let the big farms get bigger, and
the big companies end up controlling everything around
here, paying low prices for grain so they can control
markets around the world," said Gaylord Moeller,
the surviving farmer of the class of 1963. He said he
had held on to the 160-acre farm originally settled
by his German great-grandfather because he had resigned
himself to living modestly.
Thomas Dorr, the under secretary of agriculture for
rural development and an Iowa farmer himself, advocates
the industrial-size farms and said in an interview that
it was wrong-headed to view agriculture in terms of
small farms versus large. American agriculture, he said,
simply reflects the increased global market.
"Marketplaces are always going to change, they
are always going to fluctuate," he said. "Everybody
always frames it in small versus large instead of where
the opportunities are."
Mr. Zoellick, the trade representative, has proposed
cutting over $8 billion in subsidies, but only if Europe
makes deeper cuts.
Keith Collins, the chief economist at the Department
of Agriculture, said there is "compelling evidence"
that subsidies do increase production, distort trade
and undermine poor countries.
"Payments increase production and production increases
exports," Mr. Collins said in an interview.
This American emphasis on exports has not only increased
the size of the farms, but has also limited what is
grown on them.
When Denison's boomers were born in 1945, Iowa's farmers
grew 17 commercial crops, including potatoes, cherries,
peaches, plums, pears, strawberries, raspberries and
wheat. Farmers sold vegetables from their truck gardens
at harvest time.
Now the commercial crops are down to four — feed
corn, soybeans, hay and oats — and Denison has
a hard time filling a farmer's market one afternoon
"It's easier to get fresh fruits and vegetables
in Des Moines now than it is in Denison," said
Cecelia Servoss Arnold, a member of the class of 1963.
Denison is the birthplace of Iowa Beef Packers, among
the first slaughterhouses to use a modern assembly line
system that revolutionized the meat industry by eliminating
the need for most skilled labor.
Grain farms like Mr. Argotsinger's literally fed those
new slaughterhouses by raising the crops needed to feed
the hogs. Soon an industrial system was introduced to
raise enough hogs to be killed by the tens of thousands
Farmers emptied their barnyards and built factory-size
sheds in the rolling hills. They pack hundreds of hogs
into each building, feeding them with automated tubing
and siphoning off their excrement into open vats known
as manure lagoons.
While the odor and pollution are causing political
battles in the state, supporters say they are an integral
part of the new industrialization of agriculture.
"We're part of a global protein market,"
Mr. Argotsinger said. "I'm growing corn for meat
that will be sold to China."