Message to President Obama: Why Trade Will Not Save Rural America

In Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s op-ed this week in the Des Moines Register, he recognized that hunger could not be solved by raising production, because production is in fact at record highs. Grappling with how these increases in productivity have not led to increases in profit, he explained that even though we’ve lost a million farmers in the last 40 years, “income from farming operations declined as a percentage of total farm family income by half.” He continued, “Today, only 11 percent of family farm income comes from farming, which may explain why fewer young people go into farming and why many families rely on off-farm income opportunities to keep their farms.” Vilsack gets the situation right, but his remedy is wrong. Instead of encouraging diversity and altering the pattern of overproduction which pits large farm owners against small by shrinking margins, the Obama administration’s way of dealing with the discrepancy in rural America is through increasing trade.

In his State of the Union address last Wednesday, President Obama covered a lot of ground. His primary goal was to focus on job creation, but he left out one important occupation–in a nation where the average farmer is 57 years old, we need farmers. He mentioned the obesity crisis, noting that the First Lady would be dedicating her efforts there, and then made this comment about doubling our trade in goods and commodity crops in the next five years:

To help meet this goal, we’re launching a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security. We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are.  If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores. But realizing those benefits also means enforcing those agreements so our trading partners play by the rules. And that’s why we’ll continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia.

He has thus far stuck to his word. According to the USDA, $234.5 million is being given to 70 U.S. trade organizations to help promote American food and agricultural products abroad (you can see who this money is going to, from the Cotton Council International, which received a whopping $20 million, to trade reps for perishables like the California Prune Board, which received nearly $3 million). The Farm Bureau is thrilled that this administration is poised to aggressively pursue trade agreement negotiations with other countries as it clearly benefits big producers. So is Republican senator and erstwhile Bush Jr. Secretary of Agriculture nominee Mike Johanns from Nebraska, who had this to say:

With unemployment at 10 percent, we should be pursuing every possible avenue to promote good opportunities for job growth and business investment. Our businesses, farmers, and ranchers produce the highest quality products in the world and deserve an opportunity to compete on a level playing field.

The problem is that places like South Korea have expressed that they don’t want our goods if they contain hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Worse, though, is that our products are not traded on a “level playing field,” but instead are sold at an unfairly low prices in developing countries, made falsely cheap by our subsidy system. Developed world subsidies have been the prime barrier to negotiations at the Doha Development Round trade talks, which began in 2001 and continue to this day with no agreement–which many consider a victory for developing nations. And while Obama seeks to cut subsidies in his budget, it will be an uphill battle, especially without a stricter definition for who is a farmer.

Ben Lilliston, Communications Director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy had this to say about the administration’s plan for increasing trade:

The goal of doubling commodity trade is not feasible or wise. This emphasis on export markets is odd given that it runs directly counter to a lot of the Administration’s work to support local food systems. And expanding exports would definitely come at the expense of local food systems. The reality is that we’ve tried to expand agriculture exports for the last 50 years. That goal represents a lot of what is wrong in U.S. farm policy: a push to lower commodity prices–to make us more competitive internationally; an emphasis on just a few commodity crops; and support for large-scale operations over smaller, more diversified farms. An emphasis on exports has benefited multinational agribusiness firms, but not farmers either in the U.S., or in other countries. U.S. agribusiness companies have a several decade record of exporting commodity crops like corn, soybeans, rice and wheat at prices below the cost of production–a practice known as dumping. The result has been devastating to poor countries trying to develop their own food production. The loss of food production in many poor countries is a major contributor to growing hunger around the world. What makes the proposal so strange is that the Administration has to know this is not possible. Even agribusiness companies–who I’m sure love the proposal–know it’s not possible to reach.

Here is what trade agreements looks like in action: as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), U.S. corn sold cheaper than it could be produced, putting millions of Mexican farmers out of business–simultaneously quashing the diversity of the corn varieties and genetically contaminating locally grown corn with GMOs. As a result, these jobless farmers have made their way across the border to pick fruits and vegetables in America (often in slave-like conditions), or work mind-numbing jobs in slaughterhouses. But NAFTA’s destructive legacy runs deeper still. Last October, Mexico was ordered to pay the corn-processing giant Cargill a $77 million dollar fine for imposing a tax on high fructose corn syrup in an attempt to protect their domestic sugar farmers.

Vilsack’s op-ed focused on rebuilding rural America. However, when dollars leave the farm community headed to corporate multinationals for seed, chemicals and equipment, and the products produced on the farm are not food but commodities that then leave the community too, how can broadband and increased trade be anything more than band-aids for rural America? In the face of facts like climate change, to which agriculture contributes at least 30% of carbon emissions, decreased water availability and uncertain oil resources, trade veils the real problems facing the food system. What we need is balance: balanced opportunities in rural areas, a balanced ecosystem with diversified crops that feed local populations, and a balanced number of farmers to knit that community together. More farmers means more jobs, more stewardship of the land, and better quality food–and as a result, a thriving rural economy.

Up next, watch for the administration to start pressuring Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) to release his hold on Islam Siddiqui, Obama’s nominee for Chief Agricultural Negotiator, who’s pesticide lobbying past is not behind the pause. Indeed, who else but a Big Ag lobbyist could they get to take on such a mission seemingly bound for disaster?

10 thoughts on “Message to President Obama: Why Trade Will Not Save Rural America

  1. IMHO, that’s an excellent message and I hope you did send it to President Obama by mail or took some other steps for it to reach audience outside of this blog? Because I doubt he reads Civil Eats.

    I just found this site recently and I love it but once again I see a group of like-minded people here. It’s great but how do we reach out to the majority of the population who doesn’t get it yet? I mean if 80% of people stopped buying junk it would make Monsanto & Co history way faster than any government intervention or rules …

  2. While I agree with most of your article, I’d like to point out that the S. Korean protests were not over hormones, antibiotics, or GMOs.

    The protests were mainly initiated by students over a largely imagined risk of mad cow disease (mostly stemming from a single erroneous front page news article), and the adults carried on with that theme while also covering discontent with a very unpopular ultraconservative president and a railway workers’ complaint (it was never explained to me very well, but I have some propaganda given to me at a candlelight vigil). I was living in South Korea at the time, and I can assure you that the “crazy cow” protests never had anything to do with the facts on American beef.

  3. Well, this fits with the convoluted way our political wonks do things. $230mm to TRADE ORGS!

    This is money to be spent around the world, but not here in the good ol’USA. A majority of the money from the previous two Farm Bills has gone unfunded. I have paperwork requesting to partcipate in USDA programs that have languished for more than two years. These programs were for conservation, water resource mgmt, and wetland improvement…never funded. I can name you 20 or more farmers who are still waiting for funding for crop production and coop marketing programs.

    I understand the importance of having export markets, but, these markets mean little to the small and mid-size agricultural operators. They need access to local and regional markets. A little of that $230MM, invested in local farms, would do more for our economy, and with a more lasting effect. It is a proven concept that a dollar spent locally can have an economic impact worth $15.00 or more by the time it “tumbles” through that community.

    Besides, the majority of the export market is controlled by the industrial food giants, and lord knows, we need to help them out financially.

  4. Great article. However, the problem with creating local food systems in rural areas is that there are no people left in those areas to feed. I agree that direct sales are the way to go, but first we have to get the rural/urban population in balance. As Wendell Berry says, we are faced with the very tricky problem developing supply and demand simultaneously.

  5. Paula,

    Again you hit the nail on the head. Thanks for the info… I’ll save it as an excellent resource.

    I second what Smokey wrote. Sometimes it is so frustrating to get info from the USDA about their programs only to find out that there are too many strings attached. So where the big industrial ag companies are subsidized heavily, I have never gotten any subsidies, grants, loans, etc. and that is why my organically grown garlic costs more.

    Thanks. Now I’ll step down from my soapbox.

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  9. I agree with AprilMC. Rural areas are being depopulated as farm consolidation continues. Rural areas need local food sytems, yes, but they need local economies. Agribusiness has killed the family farm and Walmart has killed main street. Restore those, and people will return, and local food systems will follow.