Picking the battles will be key to reforming food policy
Ah, the House Agriculture Committee. Never will you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Well, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but not by too much, I don’t think. As Michael Pollan put it, “It’s where decent ag legislation goes to die.”
Does sustainable agriculture have any hope of support there? Well, we can be somewhat cheered by the fact that, with the Republican caucus as small as it has been in decades, the House Ag Committee has a mere 17 Republicans in contrast to its 29 Democrats. And the House being the House, you can be sure that those 17 Republicans will have plenty of time to work on their canasta skills (or whatever it is minority members do with all their spare time) because they certainly won’t be writing legislation.
Unfortunately for us, the Democratic membership is mostly comprised of Blue Dogs (i.e. conservative Democrats) from farm states who have no real interest in or incentive for reform. And one thing is certain: Committee Chair and Blue Dog extraordinaire Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.) is no Henry Waxman, the hero of reform and oversight now leading the way on climate change and health-care reform.
In some ways, it’s good news that the Farm Bill won’t come up for re-authorization for several years. First, it means President Barack Obama doesn’t have to dive right into this political-capital destroying mess of subsidy reform — he has, after all, promised to eliminate subsidies for farmers who make more than $250,000 in farm income, two-thirds less than the current limit (and he put it in writing, no less). But more importantly, it gives us time to plot.
What should a foodie do between now and then? Now that we’ve got our shiny new President, it’d be nice to take him out for a spin, food policy-wise, even if we can’t immediately head for the rocky terrain of the Farm Bill. Dave Murphy has written about what we might expect from the USDA, the good as well as the bad and the ugly. But what about some of the other areas that impact food and agriculture policy beyond the USDA and beyond what’s contained in the Farm Bill? I thought I might do a series of posts on some of these areas since they’ll deeply affect the development of sustainable agriculture. Let’s start small. How’s international trade policy grab you?
Granted this isn’t the stuff of great drama, but for a country that supposedly champions free trade, we sure make a hash of it in the ag sector. You can make a fair argument that our subsidy regime has lost most of its relevance except in one area: the allowance of our products to be sold abroad for less than the cost of producing them. America prides itself on its ability to “feed the world.” And yes, we’re the lowest-cost producer of many of the world’s commodity crops. But that’s only because taxpayers make up the difference between a crop’s world-market price and the cost of domestic production to the tune of $20 billion in subsidies each year.
The momentum for maintaining these massive subsidies at current levels springs in large part from abject terror among politicians and agribusiness at the prospect of cratering export sales, should America try to compete in a freer, if not a truly free, market. For decades our trade representatives (and institutions like the IMF and the World Bank) touted the idea of “comparative advantage,” which in effect suggests that countries should grow their lowest-cost cash crops, sell most of them on the world market, and import the food they need to feed their citizens — a recipe for nothing more than disaster. Pushing the idea proved disastrous in many parts of the developing world during the ’80s and ’90s. Thankfully, comparative advantage has fallen out of favor as the foundation of agricultural development, but the concept still undergirds the system we have now.
What’s America’s comparative advantage? As Paul Roberts eloquently put it in The End of Food:
[it] isn’t the great quality of its land, or the fitness of its climate, or even the considerable skills of its farmers, but the nation’s political inability to reform its farm policy.
The good news is that outside pressures are growing. The current round of free-trade negotiations for the World Trade Organization is in limbo because a group of developing nations anchored by Brazil, India, and South Africa (and including China) got together, gave themselves a catchy name — the Group of 20 — and declared that unless America and the E.U. reform their agricultural policies, no more trade liberalization. Now, I admit that few reading this would shed tears at the death of the WTO, but it did get our government’s attention.
Indeed, the most recent negotiations in Geneva over the summer collapsed in chaos, despite the fact that the U.S. was willing to cut agricultural subsidies (only a little, but it’s the thought that counts). If faced with the outright collapse the WTO itself, the Obama administration will probably blink harder. If it does so during the next round of WTO negotiations, then it will have opened a significant chink in the armor of agricultural subsidies.
So, who’s in charge of all this and what can we expect from him? Well, the new U.S. trade representative is former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (D). He has no particular background in agriculture (he was also under consideration for transportation secretary), and he is a supporter of free trade in general. He has, however, come out very strongly in support of the environmental and labor protections Obama wants to reverse-engineer into free-trade agreements as well as the removal of treaty provisions that might conflict with Obama’s other domestic priorities like health care and climate change. The reason for hope? The fact that negotiations require give as well as take. With this administration’s trade priorities elsewhere, agricultural subsidies become a prime area of compromise. And that, my friends, is how the ground may shift under agribusiness and its lord protector Rep. Collin Peterson between now and the next Farm Bill.
Up next for this series? The environment.