Speaking before the National Restaurant Association on Monday, John McCain delivered a stirring rant against agriculture subsidies and the latest farm bill (text here.)
No doubt burnishing his "maverick" image among editorial writers, the senator lambasted the bill as a giveaway of "billions of dollars in subsidies to some of the biggest and richest agribusiness corporations in America — many of which are heavy political contributors to members in both parties."
Well, that’s not quite right — but I think I know where McCain is coming from. The subsidies don’t directly go to agribusiness giants, but rather to large scale corn, soy, and cotton farmers — who then typically spend them on stuff like John Deere tractors and Monsanto seeds. When the subsidies allow farmers to sell their goods below the cost of production — which hasn’t been happening since the great ethanol-fueled corn/soy rally that started in late 2006 — they certainly amount to an indirect gift to big grain buyers like meat giant Tyson and corn-processing king Archer Daniels Midland. (Here’s a great paper (PDF) by Tufts researchers Elanor Starmer and Tim Wise documenting that phenomenon.)
So I salute the GOP front runner for directing his ire at agribiz, not farmers. But McCain also revealed another agenda — one perfectly in tune with the same agribusiness interests he’s ostensibly taking on. He declared:
It is a longstanding goal of American trade policy — and a goal I share — to open foreign markets across the world to American farmers. But the biggest obstacle is not to be found in any foreign market, or in the policies of any other government. It’s right there in the Congress of the United States, in the billions of dollars in subsidies served up every five years to corporate farmers.
Here McCain hits on the real agenda of agribusiness: open markets. Companies like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Tyson dominate food production in the global marketplace. They don’t want countries setting food policies that impede the flow of goods across borders. They want global food trade to take place on their own terms — they don’t want governments tinkering with pesky ideas like food sovereignty.
The real agribiz agenda isn’t to maximize the income of U.S. farmers; it’s to maximize trade — even at the expense of small farmers in the global south. That’s why Bush and his man at USDA are so indignant about the new farm bill version: it’s gumming up the works for the WTO’s Doha round of trade talks.
Don’t buy the rhetoric that Doha is the "development round" that’s going to boost the lot of impoverished farmers in the southern hemisphere by opening U.S. and European markets. As Wise of Tufts shows (PDF), rich-country agribiz giants would gain the lion’s share of benfits if Doha succeeds.
So one cheer to McCain for denouncing subsidies to huge producers; but a hearty Bronx cheer to his bow to the agribiz trade agenda.