US Farmers, Raise Your Pitchforks For Free Trade
October 12, 1998
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.—It looks as though free trade for American farmers has now been blocked completely.
Congress has voted again to deny President Clinton the "fast track" authority to negotiate trade agreements. (Fast track gives the Senate only a "yes or no" vote on treaties, preventing endless congressional tinkering.)
The House vote wasn't even close. Pat Buchanan-style conservatives, who think the United States would be even richer if it could sell goods only to itself, voted with pro-union liberal Democrats. Both groups claimed they were "saving American jobs."
The tragic irony is that free trade in farm products would create hundreds of thousands of farm and blue-collar jobs that couldn't be exported, because they'd be linked to the country's big tracts of prime farmland.
THE FAILURE of fast track for U.S. negotiators could doom the world to another decade of meeting its still-increasing food needs by expanding low-yield farming onto remaining wildlands.
Export farmers in America, Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Poland and many other countries should be helping Asia to fill its rapidly expanding food gap and prevent the clearing of its tropical forests. But that won't happen without farm-trade liberalization.
AMERICAN FARMERS are only beginning to realize that exports are already earning them $50 billion per year and could earn them $100 billion per year within a decade of liberalized farm trade.
However, the world's biggest trading nation, and the natural leader of farm-trade reform, won't be at the World Trade Organization's negotiating table next year.
The negotiations are a heaven-sent opportunity to combine the weight of the United States, Canada and two dozen other countries to bring down the world's farm-trade barriers.
But that's unlikely to happen unless American farmers can get fast track—at least for farm trade—before the end of the parley.
FOR THE WORLD'S export farmers, it's as if an avalanche of snow has just blocked the mountain pass.
There's a huge snowplow that could clear the tracks and lead them to the warmth and prosperity of the valley. But the snowplow is surrounded by an anti-trade picket line.
In the valley beyond the pass are billions of consumers who urgently want more and better food. And they have the money to pay.
These consumers either must bring more food across the snow-blocked pass or destroy their wildlands to produce the grain, milk and fruit that will let their children grow tall and strong.
The farmers who could export stand desperate in the cold, and the snowplow sits silent.
SOME AMERICAN FARMERS are becoming desperately irrational.
Recently, North Dakota farmers and ranchers were blockading roads and railroads to prevent imports of Canadian grain and meat under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
State police were flagging down Canadian grain trucks and demanding proof that the trucks were carrying no wild-oat seeds. (Everybody's grain has wild-oat seeds.)
It's great rural politics, but ruinous farm policy. Note that North Dakota itself produces an enormous surplus of wheat—and nine times more beef than it consumes.
If North Dakota can violate NAFTA to keep out Canadian grain and beef, what's to prevent Minnesota and Nebraska from blocking their borders against North Dakota's farm surpluses?
Is North Dakota going to reimburse the rest of America's farmers if Mexico abrogates its NAFTA obligations and buys 10 million tons of farm products this year from Argentina instead of from its NAFTA partners?
THIS IS the first time in history that the world has really needed North Dakota's farm products.
The railroads that linked North Dakota with the world in the 1870s created a global farm surplus. The rails "created" a billion acres of agricultural land in western North America, Argentina, Australia and the Ukraine.
For the intervening 120 years, the world has been able to produce more food than people could afford to buy.
ONLY IN the 1990s has surging economic growth broadly increased the number of affluent consumers. Demand has finally caught up with technology.
Twenty years ago, the world had perhaps 700 million consumers of high-quality food, almost all in the First World.
Today, there are more than twice that many, with most of them found in the Third World. A big proportion of them are in China, where the average consumer's purchasing power has soared from less then $100 in 1978 to more than $3,000 today.
India has nearly 300 million middle-class consumers, with millions more in Egypt, Brazil, Pakistan and elsewhere.
FREEING FARM TRADE is the only way for the world to get through that blocked pass to the valley of prosperity and environmental conservation. If that means the world's high-yield farmers have to attack the snow-blocked pass with shovels, it must be done.
Can the export-oriented farmers create headlines as effectively as the North Dakota farmers blocking roads?
Can we get rich urbanites to back free farm trade to save Asian kids and tropical forests as well as not-very-cuddly high-yield farmers?
We must. Otherwise, we may be too late to save the wildlands. Tropical forests will be slashed and burned, more rivers will be dammed for irrigation and small children will get rickets instead of milk.
Farmers, grab your shovels.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.