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The Cancún delusion

(Friday, Sept. 12, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Michael Lind, NY Times op-ed: WASHINGTON — The World Trade Organization meeting in Cancún, Mexico, has highlighted a surprising new cause, promoted by a surprising new alliance. The new cause is the campaign to reduce or eliminate agricultural subsidies in the United States, Europe and Japan, to make room for agricultural exports from poor nations. The alliance between idealists of the left, third world producers and traditional conservative promoters of free trade is equally unprecedented.

But the Cancún coalition is unlikely to last. It is bound to fray when it becomes clear that while the free traders are getting what they want out of the partnership — lower taxes and expanded markets — the populism and environmentalism of the left will be thwarted.

Agricultural subsidies in the advanced industrial nations ought to be reduced — but for reasons that have little to do with their impact on developing countries. Created to promote a rural middle class when much of the population still worked in the farm sector, most subsidies are anachronistic now that agribusiness in the advanced countries employs only a tiny percentage of the population. Farm subsidy programs exploit consumers and taxpayers.

So yes, the abolition of most farm subsidies by the advanced nations is an overdue reform. But the result is unlikely to be the one hoped for by the left wing of the Cancún coalition — the enrichment of peasant farmers.

In fact, ending subsidies, if it leads to the modernization of agriculture in the developing world, is likely to destroy the very sorts of communities the pro-trade left seeks to support. The high-tech farming of the global north uses machinery instead of human labor, along with huge quantities of fossil fuels and artificial fertilizers and pesticides. If the third world becomes as attractive to agribusiness as the first, then machines will replace family farmers, who will become as rare in Thailand as they are in the United States.

Technological displacement has the potential to produce social disasters. Many of the inner-city poor of the United States descend from farm laborers and tenant farmers displaced by the mechanization of agriculture in the South a few generations ago. Those who joined the middle class did so because they were able to find work in the expanding industrial and service sectors. But such opportunities are scarce in the developing world. For better or worse, the anti-subsidy movement, if it succeeds, is more likely to eliminate developing world farmers than to enrich them.

The desire of many on the left to preserve traditional small-scale agriculture in the third world is also on a collision course with the goal of preserving the last remnants of global wilderness. High-tech agriculture wastes fossil fuels — but it spares land, by growing more food on less acreage. Genetically modified crops promise to do the same. Premodern third world agriculture doesn't rely on chemicals or genetically modified crops. But it takes far more land to grow the same crop by traditional methods than it does by means of industrial farming. The earth's remaining wilderness would be in even greater danger if the opening of northern markets were to create a financial incentive for developing nations to replace forests, savannas and wetlands with land-wasting peasant farms.

These are the alternatives, then. If third world agriculture is industrialized, then much third world wilderness will be saved from the plow. But most farmers will be forced off the farm, and therefore may not profit from the access of southern agricultural exporters to northern markets. If, on the other hand, third world agriculture is not industrialized, then the effort to enrich developing countries by means of exports from labor-intensive farms will inspire a vast expansion of peasant farm acreage — at the expense of the environment.

What looked like a sweet deal that could satisfy everybody except for subsidized special interests, then, seems destined to fall apart on inspection. First world consumers and third world agribusiness (much of it foreign-owned) may profit from the opening of the agricultural markets of the United States and other rich nations. But the activist left is unlikely to get what it wants: an Arcadia of prosperous village farmers living in harmony with the land.

Michael Lind is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.