What The Future May Hold for US Farmers
September 21, 1998
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.—Like it or not, it's time for farmers in the United States and the rest of the world to seriously consider the agricultural policy views of Vice President Al Gore. It is all too clear that he could soon be occupying the Oval Office of the White House.
On the positive side, Gore grew up with strong ties to agriculture. He worked summers on his family's Tennessee tobacco crop. Gore's father, as a U.S. senator, represented that state's farmers for many years. Young Al undoubtedly learned early in life about weeds and farm price supports.
Does Gore still see agriculture as an industry that produces too much and needs price protection from the government? Or does he see modern agriculture as an invaluable asset for a world that will need three times as much food in the 21st century?
GORE WRITES about the terrible soil erosion he saw in Tennessee during his youth. However, he has given no public praise—at least any that I could find—for the conservation tillage that has defeated soil erosion on most of Tennessee's farms today. Is that because conservation tillage requires herbicides?
Gore's book, "Earth in the Balance," repeats most of the politically correct arguments for environmental policies recommended by Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.
He is opposed to pesticides, and he is critical of the Green Revolution because it seems to have led to bigger farms that use more chemicals.
UNFORTUNATELY, his book gives modern farming no credit for the 15 million square miles of wildlife habitat that have escaped the plow because we tripled the yields on the world's best farmland.
Does Gore see American agriculture as a world-class polluter or as an industry that can help Asia get meat and milk without plowing down its tropical forests?
In the past few months, Gore has been the Clinton administration's point man for new controls on livestock and poultry wastes. The proposals were put forward in the wake of last year's furor over Pfiesteria (a marine organism that was killing fish).
BUT SCIENTISTS have found no linkage between Pfiesteria and manure. (One of three Maryland rivers impacted had no significant poultry or livestock farming along its banks.)
Are the animal-waste proposals an effort to make sure only good managers produce our meat, or are they an effort to push meat production out of the United States?
Gore chose his longtime ally, Carol Browner, to head the Environmental Protection Agency. She has led an intensive campaign to reduce pesticide use, even when that would mean more soil erosion, lower yields and higher fruit and vegetable prices.
IT WAS GORE who negotiated the Kyoto treaty on global warming. If the U.S. Senate ratifies the Kyoto treaty, it would raise input costs for First World farmers even more than have Browner's actions at the EPA.
The treaty would discourage exports from high-yield farmers and encourage the low-yield farmers of the Third World to plow more fragile lands.
The Clinton administration has now put its weight behind a new package of farm measures proposed in Congress by a small group of prairie populists. The package includes storage payments and new trade barriers.
These package's provisions would not deliver much income to farmers, nor would they be compatible with eliminating agricultural import barriers in Asia and Europe. (Exports to Asia will be the big farm income opportunity in the coming decades.)
GORE IS EVEN CLOSER than Clinton to labor unions and environmental groups, and both oppose free trade. Gore might well oppose "fast-track authority" for the administration to hammer out a trade accord.
"Fast-track authority" would give U.S. negotiators a place at the table next year for World Trade Organization negotiations on liberalizing farm trade.
Other countries don't want to work out a trade deal only to have a bloc of senators reject it. Under "fast-track authority," a deal would be subject only to a yes-not vote in the Senate.
In any event, Gore would almost certainly demand additional "chapters" in all trade agreements to cover environmental and labor concerns. Such demands would probably kill any opportunity for lowering the world's farm trade barriers.
GORE'S LIMITED CONCERNS for farmers—and for accuracy—were displayed recently when he spoke to urban planners at the Brookings Institution.
He claimed that America is losing 1.5 million acres of farmland per year and that the country "could become the largest net importer of food, instead of the world's largest exporter, by the next century."
But America has been "losing" only 377,000 acres of cropland per year to urban uses, says Luther Tweeten, a top agricultural economist at Ohio State University.
WORSE, GORE APPARENTLY wants to "solve" the farmland loss problem with government land-use planning, not by expanding export opportunities to make farming more profitable. (Computer models estimate that world market prices would rise 25 percent to 50 percent if export subsidies and import barriers were removed.)
Gore seems to stand for banning farm inputs, raising farmers' regulatory costs and rebuilding First World farm surpluses. For the farmers who produce most of the world's food, such views should be disturbing.
Gore's farm policies might leave First World farmers shriveling under the harsh realities of higher production costs and already saturated domestic food demand.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.