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Why Doha-haters Are Deluded

Over at Grist, Tom Philpott rails against the news from Doha that U.S. has offered to reduce its farm subsidies--so long as other countries open up their markets to American farm exports:

What [U.S. trade rep Susan Schwab] seems to be demanding is a license to dump industrially produced U.S. farm goods onto foreign markets…Surprise, surprise. The Bush administration is using farm-subsidy cuts as a lever to pry open markets, mainly in the global south, to U.S. goods -- including ecologically devastating products like industrially produced pork.

Rather than demand for tariff reductions, the U.S. should instead invest the money from subsidies in developing local and regional systems, Philpott says, adding that developing nations should do the same and ditch the Doha trade talks immediately.

While I definitely share some of Philpott’s concerns about industrial farming, his criticisms are unfortunately short-sighted. The reason that American farm subsidies have such a devastating impact is because they massively distort the global commodities market, exacerbating crises like the current run-up in food prices. America’s farm lobby is so entrenched that it’d be unrealistic to expect them to give up a fraction of their subsidies without giving them anything in return. To cut the deal that Schwab is proposing would at least be a small step in the right direction. What’s more, if there were greater access to cheap American farm products, it would lower prices for consumers hardest hit by the food crisis that has starved and destabilized nations across the globe.

Of course, I agree that in the long run, building up local and regional agriculture is the way to go. But that’s a long-term investment that will take years to implement, and it’s not the responsibility of the U.S. trade office to create a roadmap for those kinds of changes. It won’t feed more people right now, and right now, the enormity of the food crisis demands a short-term solution--one that won’t be perfect, but which will at least feed more ailing nations and mark a small step in the battle against the American agricultural sector’s knee-jerk protectionism and intransigence. Clearing the global market of some of the most obtrusive subsidies and tariffs is a start, and we should encourage such reforms rather than scuttle them for not living up to all of our agro-utopian ideals.

--Suzy Khimm