The Americans Against Free Farm Trade
September 28, 1998
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.—The Americans who oppose freer farm trade have finally come into the open. Groups opposed to "fast-track authority" for U.S. trade negotiators are listed in an advertisement by an organization calling itself the Citizens Trade Campaign.
America's representatives can't get very far at World Trade Organization farm negotiations in Geneva next year without fast-track authority.
It's the usual way to hammer out a treaty: Our diplomats negotiate and the Senate gets a yes-or-no vote. No foreign country will work out a treaty with our diplomats and then renegotiate it with 100 senators!
THE REMARKABLE THING about the newly published list of farm-trade opponents is that it includes so few of America's farmers and rural people.
The Farmers Union and the National Farmers Organization are on the "opposed" list. That's no surprise.
Both groups were founded on the idea of government sponsored high prices for food.(Never mind that government programs have so far given us bigger surpluses and fewer family farms.)
But the Farmers Union has only about 300,000 members, and the National Farmers Organization reportedly has only 11,500.
THE AMERICAN Farm Bureau Federation, which urgently favors farm trade reform, has 4.8 million members. The National Grange (300,000 members) is also absent from the farm trade opposition list.
The Farm Bureau is obviously the major U.S. farm organization. Its membership probably includes at least 1 million active U.S. farmers and produces 80 percent of America's farm output.
THE AMERICAN Corn Growers Association is on the list of farm trade opponents, but it has only a few hundred members.
The National Corn Growers Association—whose 30,000 members farm most of the nation's corn acreage—aggressively favors farm trade.
Also supporting freer trade are the American Soybean Association, the National Cotton Growers, the American Cattlemen's Beef Association, the American Dairy Federation and virtually every other commodity organization in the United States.
THE FLORIDA Fruit and Vegetable Association is opposed to free farm trade. Its members are still bitter that the North American Free Trade Agreement allows Mexico to export more winter produce to the United States.
In return, however, Mexico is importing millions of additional tons of grain, oilseed products, meat and dairy products from America.
Even Florida fruit and vegetable growers are likely to benefit from higher prices and larger export volumes if the WTO opens up the farm trade barriers. (It is noteworthy that the California fruit and vegetable growers have not put themselves on the anti-trade list.)
HALF A DOZEN organic farming groups are also on the trade opposition list, but their farmers deliver less than 1 percent of America's food.
The only real political powerhouses on the list of farm trade opponents are church groups: The United Methodist Church General Board and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.
Another name on the opponent's list is the United Church of Christ Network for Environmental and Economic Responsibility (which is really odd, considering that free trade is the only way we have to save the wildlands of the world).
THESE GROUPS mostly represent nostalgia. They have long been dedicated to the illusion that millions more Americans should still be living on little turn-of-the-century-style general farms, with a few hogs, a few chickens, a big vegetable garden and a few acres of row crops.
Unfortunately, the per-acre yields and productivity of such farms were very low, along with their incomes.
With free farm trade, today's high-output farms would deliver much higher incomes to more farm families.
LOOKING AT TODAY'S low farm prices, a farmer recently told me, "The free market has been a disaster for agriculture." But we've never yet had a free market in agriculture.
What we've got now is a phaseout of America's old farm subsidies, with most of the world's farm import barriers still in place.
China and India are getting higher incomes, but they still aren't importing much farm production. Their increasing numbers of affluent consumers, meanwhile, are fueling rising demands for more meat, milk, fruits and cotton clothing.
EXPERTS AROUND the world agree that if the price-depressing effects of export subsidies and import barriers were eliminated, American farmers would get 25 percent to 50 percent higher world average prices (depending on the commodity) and export millions of tons of additional farm products per year.
Hundreds of thousands of new nonfarm jobs would be created. Rural communities would be revived.
The very strongest argument for free farm trade is, however, environmental. Without farm trade, Asia will clear its tropical forests to eat well.
With farm trade, little Asian kids can get the calcium to grow strong bones and the high-quality protein to reach their full height, and the world can continue to enjoy the knowledge that it didn't sacrifice natural heritage for "national food self-sufficiency."
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.