The Charm of the Farm

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

IT'S HARD TO FEEL passionate about any subject that's shrouded in thick veils of jargon. After a spurt of action last week, the "round" (translation: the global trade negotiations launched four years ago) appears to hinge on the "amber box," "blue box" and "green box" (that is, different kinds of farm subsidies), not to mention "de minimus" payments (meaning payments amounting to billions of dollars). But if the details cause the eyes to glaze over, the stakes in the talks that will resume today are simple. Reformers want to cut the subsidies and tariffs that support the rich world's farmers while ripping off taxpayers, ripping off consumers and ripping off the poor world's exporters. Meanwhile, rich farmers are using their ample political muscle to defend the indefensible.

As with Hollywood mafiosi, the farmers' lobbying muscle is based on a combination of charm, thuggery and bribery. They exploit urban sentimentality about the pastoral idyll: Parisians wax poetic about the beauty of the French countryside; people in Seoul and Tokyo regard rice farmers as the guardians of their nations' pre-industrial spirit; many American city dwellers nod sympathetically at the mention of struggling "family farms," as though combine harvesters and automated irrigation somehow connect the nation to its pioneer roots. When sentiment and charm don't work, farmers get their way with other tactics. The French park their tractors on highways until politicians hear them. The South Koreans stage violent protests. The American farm lobby, which is politically secure thanks to the over-representation of rural America in the Senate, makes slightly more than $50 million worth of political donations in each election cycle.

The upshot is a combination of subsidies and protective tariffs that pad farmers' pockets by about $1 billion per day. This protection money is out of all proportion to farmers' numbers: Europe's Common Agricultural Policy supports a sector that accounts for 2 percent of employment but 40 percent of the European Union budget. Moreover, the protection money goes mainly to the richest farmers. In both the United States and the European Union, about three-quarters of the loot goes to the top 10 percent of the recipients. In 2003, six European sugar producers shared a payout worth 831 million euros (about $1 billion at today's exchange rate). In the United States, two in five farmers don't get any subsidy, whereas the richest 5 percent average about $470,000 each. This preposterous waste of money holds back development in the poor world, contributing indirectly to millions of deaths annually.

If somebody breaks into your house, you tend to invest in stronger locks, but farmers keep taking money from ordinary taxpayers without provoking a taxpayer reaction. And so the farmers grow increasingly brazen. In Europe, the farm lobby has been trying to shorten the leash of Peter Mandelson, the E.U. trade commissioner, though thankfully he preserved his negotiating mandate at a tense meeting yesterday. In Japan, the farm lobby makes it impossible for one of the world's top exporters to play a constructive role in the trade talks.

Meanwhile, the reopening today of negotiations in Geneva coincides with work on a farm bill in the Senate Agriculture Committee. Unbothered by the fact that U.S. negotiators are trying to reduce farm protection, the committee's chairman, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), is sending the opposite signal. He wants to extend the existing subsidy-intense farm programs for four years beyond their scheduled expiration in 2007. Even leaving aside the fact that this is a frontal attack on the administration's diplomacy, does Mr. Chambliss really believe that showering money on rich farmers is good policy?


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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