D.C., September 12, 2003 -- CropChoice news -- , NY
Times op-ed: The World Trade Organization meeting
in Cancún, Mexico, has highlighted a surprising
new cause, promoted by a surprising new alliance. The
new cause is the campaign to reduce or eliminate agricultural
subsidies in the United States, Europe and Japan, to
make room for agricultural exports from poor nations.
The alliance between idealists of the left, third world
producers and traditional conservative promoters of
free trade is equally unprecedented.
But the Cancún coalition is unlikely to last.
It is bound to fray when it becomes clear that while
the free traders are getting what they want out of the
partnership — lower taxes and expanded markets
— the populism and environmentalism of the left
will be thwarted.
Agricultural subsidies in the advanced industrial nations
ought to be reduced — but for reasons that have
little to do with their impact on developing countries.
Created to promote a rural middle class when much of
the population still worked in the farm sector, most
subsidies are anachronistic now that agribusiness in
the advanced countries employs only a tiny percentage
of the population. Farm subsidy programs exploit consumers
So yes, the abolition of most farm subsidies by the
advanced nations is an overdue reform. But the result
is unlikely to be the one hoped for by the left wing
of the Cancún coalition — the enrichment
of peasant farmers.
In fact, ending subsidies, if it leads to the modernization
of agriculture in the developing world, is likely to
destroy the very sorts of communities the pro-trade
left seeks to support. The high-tech farming of the
global north uses machinery instead of human labor,
along with huge quantities of fossil fuels and artificial
fertilizers and pesticides. If the third world becomes
as attractive to agribusiness as the first, then machines
will replace family farmers, who will become as rare
in Thailand as they are in the United States.
Technological displacement has the potential to produce
social disasters. Many of the inner-city poor of the
United States descend from farm laborers and tenant
farmers displaced by the mechanization of agriculture
in the South a few generations ago. Those who joined
the middle class did so because they were able to find
work in the expanding industrial and service sectors.
But such opportunities are scarce in the developing
world. For better or worse, the anti-subsidy movement,
if it succeeds, is more likely to eliminate developing
world farmers than to enrich them.
The desire of many on the left to preserve traditional
small-scale agriculture in the third world is also on
a collision course with the goal of preserving the last
remnants of global wilderness. High-tech agriculture
wastes fossil fuels — but it spares land, by growing
more food on less acreage. Genetically modified crops
promise to do the same. Premodern third world agriculture
doesn't rely on chemicals or genetically modified crops.
But it takes far more land to grow the same crop by
traditional methods than it does by means of industrial
farming. The earth's remaining wilderness would be in
even greater danger if the opening of northern markets
were to create a financial incentive for developing
nations to replace forests, savannas and wetlands with
land-wasting peasant farms.
These are the alternatives, then. If third world agriculture
is industrialized, then much third world wilderness
will be saved from the plow. But most farmers will be
forced off the farm, and therefore may not profit from
the access of southern agricultural exporters to northern
markets. If, on the other hand, third world agriculture
is not industrialized, then the effort to enrich developing
countries by means of exports from labor-intensive farms
will inspire a vast expansion of peasant farm acreage
— at the expense of the environment.
What looked like a sweet deal that could satisfy everybody
except for subsidized special interests, then, seems
destined to fall apart on inspection. First world consumers
and third world agribusiness (much of it foreign-owned)
may profit from the opening of the agricultural markets
of the United States and other rich nations. But the
activist left is unlikely to get what it wants: an Arcadia
of prosperous village farmers living in harmony with
Michael Lind is a senior fellow at the New America