Bringing it home

Our cover story this week, about the World Trade Organization’s meeting on free trade last weekend in Cancún, Mexico, may seem to have little relevance to Chico. But that’s far from the case. In fact, the conference ultimately fell apart in disagreement over an issue that has an enormous impact on our area: agricultural subsidies.

To see how great that impact is, take a look at our Sifter column this week. It details the amount of subsidies the federal government paid to Butte County rice growers, more than $35 million county-wide, with more to come. Nationally, we spend more than $50 billion annually to subsidize farmers.

This is good for farmers, at least in the short term. It keeps them in business and allows them to compete in international markets. But in the long term it means we end up paying twice for our food, once in higher costs and again in higher taxes. And it also gives our farmers a competitive advantage over farmers in countries that have no such subsidies.

That means poor countries. Countries that have little to trade other than farm commodities. Countries such as Mali and Paraguay, Botswana and Thailand, where most people live from farming small plots using traditional labor-intensive methods. When the farmers of these countries cannot compete with farmers from rich nations, the result is disaster: starvation, dislocation and flight to the cities and, when possible, to the richer nations themselves.

The income gap between the rich and poor countries is 10 times wider than it was just 30 years ago. Nearly half the 6 billion people on Earth are struggling to survive on less than $2 a day. Meanwhile, we give American cotton farmers three times as much annually in subsidies as we spend on all of our foreign aid to Africa, where tens of millions of small-plot cotton farmers are unable to compete for a share of our markets.

Is it any wonder that 21 of these poor nations walked out of the WTO conference when the rich nations refused to end their subsidies? What else could they do? For them, free trade is a meaningless term without an end to farm subsidies.