Beware of U.S. trade officials bearing gifts
U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab made headlines this week by offering to reduce U.S. farm subsidies. The context was the so-called Doha Round of trade talks — the WTO’s latest, oft-stalled effort to grease the wheels of global trade.
Among sustainable-food advocates, there’s a reflexive tendency to cheer whenever farm subsidies go on the chopping block. But as is often the case in the farm-policy debate, this progressive-looking offer is anything but.
First of all, let’s look at the conditions of Schwab’s offer. According to the Financial Times (via the indispensable blog Farm Policy):
[U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab] said the offer was conditional on other countries opening their markets to US farm exports and agreeing not to launch litigation against US farm payments at the WTO, as has happened repeatedly.
In other words, we’ll reduce our subsidies as long as you completely open your markets to our (still-subsidized) goods. What she seems to be demanding is a license to dump industrially produced U.S. farm goods onto foreign markets.
And that’s not all. According to The Wall Street Journal:
In exchange for the concessions on farm aid, the U.S. and the EU [which is also offering to trim farm support] want emerging economies to agree to steep tariff cuts on chemicals, cars and other industrial goods. The U.S. and European business communities consider access to these markets essential in a slowing global economy.
Surprise, surprise. The Bush administration is using farm-subsidy cuts as a lever to pry open markets, mainly in the global south, to U.S. goods — including ecologically devastating products like industrially produced pork. This is precisely the situation I was describing — so controversially — in the farm-bill debate last fall.
Speaking of the farm bill, that tortured piece of legislation brings to mind another reason to look askance upon Schwab’s offer: making it happen would require rewriting the farm bill. Does anyone really think that’s going to happen?
Finally, with prices for subsidized crops like corn, soy, and wheat at all-time highs — propped up by another massive set of government subsidies and supports for biofuel — current farm payments are coming in lower than the level being offered by Schwab.
All told, her offer is a fraud. The U.S. should slash subsidies, and use the proceeds to rebuild local and regional food systems here. And countries in the global south should exit the Doha talks, and instead focus on rebuilding regional and national agricultural and manufacturing economies.