So while the U.S. Farm Bill is out to pasture until 2008, it looks like most commodity subsidies will remain untouched. Agricultural price supports may be the law of the land here, but it’s certainly not what we’ve been advocating abroad. A bittersweet story on page one of today’s NY Times documents how Malawians are pulling back from the brink, largely because — going against the wishes of the World Bank — they’ve begun to reinstitute government crop subsidies:

Over the past 20 years, the World Bank and some rich nations Malawi depends on for aid have periodically pressed this small, landlocked country to adhere to free market policies and cut back or eliminate fertilizer subsidies, even as the United States and Europe extensively subsidized their own farmers. But after the 2005 harvest, the worst in a decade, Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s newly elected president, decided to follow what the West practiced, not what it preached.

Stung by the humiliation of pleading for charity, he led the way to reinstating and deepening fertilizer subsidies despite a skeptical reception from the United States and Britain. Malawi’s soil, like that across sub-Saharan Africa, is gravely depleted, and many, if not most, of its farmers are too poor to afford fertilizer at market prices.

Last year, roughly half the country’s farming families received coupons that entitled them to buy two 110-pound bags of fertilizer, enough to nourish an acre of land, for around $15 — about a third the market price. The government also gave them coupons for enough seed to plant less than half an acre.

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The outcome of Mutharika’s bold reforms are that this year Malawi produced record-breaking harvests: Corn production leaped to 2.7 million metric tons in 2006 and 3.4 million in 2007 from 1.2 million in 2005, according to government reports.

So why is the story "bittersweet"? Two reasons. One is that while it’s hard to argue against anything that alleviates famine, the emphasis on inorganic fertilizers and maximum yields is clearly unsustainable. India, which has been pursuing this tactic since the 1970s, is already seeing the fallout — crop failure and a rash of suicides among desperate farmers. An approach that favors varieties well-suited to the arid climate and organic nutrients might not yield a bumper crop, but in the long-haul will be more reliable and could well yield more nutritious food.

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The second "bitter" point is that the NYT lets the World Bank off way too easily:

In the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the World Bank pushed Malawi to eliminate fertilizer subsidies entirely. Its theory both times was that Malawi’s farmers should shift to growing cash crops for export and use the foreign exchange earnings to import food, according to Jane Harrigan, an economist at the University of London.

In a withering evaluation of the World Bank’s record on African agriculture, the bank’s own internal watchdog concluded in October not only that the removal of subsidies had led to exorbitant fertilizer prices in African countries, but that the bank itself had often failed to recognize that improving Africa’s declining soil quality was essential to lifting food production.

Failed to recognize? I find it hard to believe that an organization chock-full of some of the world’s most astute political and economic analysts somehow overlooked the fact that you need good soil to make good food. This is just one example of the World Bank’s long legacy of corrupt policies ostensibly aimed at curbing poverty, but in reality well-crafted to make the rich richer, with often disastrous consequences for the environment. Volumes can be — and have been — said about this, so I won’t belabor the point, but it continues to be true that most of this discussion is off the mainstream media radar. Folks like Paul Hawken and Amy Goodman eat it for breakfast, by the way. A nice video is available here). As wonkish and unsexy as things like international trade policy are, its effects are just as critical to global environmental health as, say, climate change legislation. Recognizing that (and paying attention when things like NAFTA and WTO are being discussed) is also a reminder that sharing our resources equitably is, in the end, the entire point of being an environmentalist.