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Articles by Thomas Dobbs

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With each new event or international conference in 2008’s saga of economic and food crises, there are calls to complete the long-running Doha Round of World Trade Organization negotiations. The international players all act as if achieving a Doha agreement, seemingly any agreement, will help solve one or more aspects of these crises.

The latest such conference was the G-20 Summit, Nov. 14-15 in Washington, D.C., called to coordinate actions on the financial and consequent economic crises that have spread from the U.S. to much of the world. The joint statement released at the conclusion of the G-20 Summit called for trade ministers to try to finally conclude the Doha Round.

That is not about to happen before the Obama administration takes office. Events of the past five years amply demonstrate that fundamental differences in perspectives about the roles of agriculture in trade can no longer be glossed over.

Leaders of the 20 participating countries released a 16-point statement at the conclusion of the G-20 Summit on Nov. 15. Point 13 reads as follows:

We underscore the critical importance of rejecting protectionism and not turning inward in ti... Read more

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  • A little noted provision of the new Farm Bill

    The federal Farm Bill that was passed and signed into law in June contains a little noted provision directing the USDA to establish a framework that would facilitate participation of farmers and landowners in emerging environmental services markets. At a time when the American market system seems to be collapsing all around us, how should […]

  • Agriculture produces more than just crops — and it’s time for policy to reflect that

    In spite of the best efforts of sustainable agriculture, environmental, and healthy food advocates over the past two years to reform U.S. farm policy, the bill recently passed by Congress lacks fundamental reform. Although the bill includes some environmental and healthy food system improvements over existing legislation, the system of commodity subsidies remains intact, and it is these subsidies, together with biofuels subsidies and mandates embodied in the farm bill and energy legislation, that drive the basic structure of the U.S. farm and food system.

    To break the farm-block stranglehold on farm and food policy the next time around, we need a need a new vision of agriculture: one that recognizes that farmers produce more than just food, feed, fuel, and fiber. We also count on farmers to take care of vast swaths of critically important land. What we need, in short, is a "multifunctionality" vision of agriculture.

  • Agriculture is drunk on corn-based ethanol

    Thomas Dobbs is Professor Emeritus of Economics at South Dakota State University, and a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food & Society Policy Fellow.


    American agriculture is becoming addicted to corn-based ethanol, and the economic and environmental effects of this addiction call for some intervention!

    The explosive growth in U.S. ethanol production from corn is having worldwide ramifications. December 6 articles in The Economist ("Cheap no more" and "The end of cheap food") trace the impacts of ethanol production on prices of other crops and on food. Rising crop prices can benefit farmers not only in the U.S., but also farmers who have marketable surpluses in other countries.

    Many consumers, however, are hurt by the rising food prices. This is especially true of urban and landless rural poor in developing countries. According to The Economist's food-price index, food prices have risen in real (inflation-adjusted) terms by 75 percent since 2005. International Food Policy Research Institute data cited by The Economist indicates "the expansion of ethanol and other biofuels could reduce caloric intake by another 4-8 percent in Africa and 2-5 percent in Asia by 2020."

    The growth in ethanol production is hardly a market phenomenon. According to The Economist, Federal subsidies for ethanol production already come to over $7 billion a year. Moreover, many previous years of cheap corn that resulted from Federal farm program subsidies helped lay the economic foundation for ethanol plants already built or under construction.

    Implications for energy and farm policies?

    What are the policy implications of this "food versus fuel" conflict that past and present energy and farm policies have created? As far as the ethanol industry is concerned, its interests trump all other interests, including those of taxpayers and the poor who can least afford higher food prices.

  • Why gutting commodity subsidies should be the focus of Farm Bill reform efforts

    Thomas Dobbs is Professor Emeritus of Economics at South Dakota State University, and a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food & Society Policy Fellow.


    Tom Philpott wrote an article in which he challenged some of the key assumptions underlying Farm Bill reform efforts of the past year ("It's the Agronomy, Stupid"). He contended that gutting commodity subsidies would not solve the U.S.'s long-standing oversupply problems, and that we need the money currently in the "commodity" title to remain available for eventual support of conservation and other measures reformers hold dear.

    The following day, a guest post by Britt Lundgren appeared in Gristmill, contending that Philpott missed the real point of the Farm Bill debate. The real point, said Lundgren, is "whether or not the current suite of farm subsidies are actually an effective and productive way to support agriculture in the U.S."

    I find myself largely in agreement with the contents of Lundgren's post, but I want to address more directly Philpott's contention that "it's the agronomy" that matters. I disagree. "It's the economics" that matters in assessing the consequences of the U.S. farm program's heavy emphasis on commodity subsidies.