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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Cotton subsidies and Al-Qaeda

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The cover of Time Magazine (September 17 issue: “One Nation Subsidized”) features a thought-provoking article by Michael Grunwald.  As I was reading on, my thoughts kept moving to the news of an Al-Qaeda offshoot taking over the northern half of Mali, in Africa.  What’s the connection, you ask?  Let me lay it out, best as I can.  Aside from the ecological truism that everything is connected, there is an interesting link between the two topics formed by farm policy.

In his article Grunwald mentions that his Miami-based family pays about $100/month for water.  He figures that this fee represents just a small fraction of the actual cost of delivering clean water and treating the sewage they produce.  That cost doesn’t even begin to account for the $15 billion needed to restore the Everglades, which is vital for the long term water supply for Miami.  Likewise, they pay around $200 a month for electricity, but “that number would be much higher if the feds didn’t subsidize the construction, liability insurance and just about every other cost associated with my utility’s nuclear power plants while also providing generous tax advantages (depletion allowances, intangible drilling costs, and so forth) for natural gas and other fossil fuels.”

As a journalist, Grunwald ponders the ramifications of the various subsidies that touch the life of his family, directly or indirectly: located as they are in a low-lying area in the path of hurricanes, they benefit from subsidized flood insurance, and they also can deduct their home mortgage interest from their taxes, two measures that have been denounced as promoting sprawl.  But they also have been profiting from subsidies to install energy efficient windows and writing-off home office expenses, measures rightly applauded by environmentalists.  Some good, some bad, but there is certainly no denying that subsidies play a huge role in the life of every American family.

But farm handouts certainly for a continuous thread in Grunwald’s article:

 The silliest handouts that brighten my morning are the boondoggles that funnel billions to America’s cotton and grain farmers and maybe knock a few cents off the price of my T-shirts and my kids’ breakfast waffles.  Uncle Sam sends at least $15 billion every year to farmers and agribusinesses in the form of grants, loans, crop insurance and other goodies.  The farm lobby is so omnipotent in Washington that when the World Trade Organization ruled that US handouts give our cotton farmers an unfair advantage over Brazil, the US cut a deal to shovel $147 million a year to Brazilian cotton farmers rather than kick our own farmers off the dole.”

“When I asked analysts at the antigovernment Cato Institute and the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities what was the most wasteful government spending, they all gave the same answer: farm subsidies.”

The next article in that issue of Time is by Bobby Ghosh, optimistically titled “The End of Al-Qaeda?”  How ironic.  This, as Al-Qaeda is making great strides in northern Mali, controlling over half of the African country and imposing Taliban-like measures: music is banned, education is repressed, and Unesco world heritage sites have been destroyed.

Even stranger, in contrast to the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed in Afghanistan,  the Islamist group Ansar Dine is destroying Islamic sites: the tombs of Sidi Mahmoud and other teachers considered holy by locals in Timbuktu.  This is very hard to understand, but it certainly brings to mind the concept of environmentally-related violence developed by Thomas Homer-Dixon: environmental change bringing about drought and food scarcity, fomenting violence between competing groups as the only escape route, as with the Janjaweed in Darfur.

Maybe this is all related to climate, but I think that there is a more basic, policy related connection, which brings me back to Michael Grunwald’s article.

Remember the US subsidies to agriculture, including the ones to cotton?  Mali produces cotton.  But Malian farmers can’t make a living at it.  And their government certainly can’t afford to subsidize them.  Subsidized American cotton depresses the price their locally grown cotton fetches.  Unfair competition, whichever you look at it; but Mali cotton farmers certainly don’t have the clout with the WTO that their wealthier Brazilian colleagues enjoy.

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman have nicely documented the situation in their 2009 book Enough: why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty.  During the 90’s, international development efforts turned away from agriculture, choosing to emphasize industrial projects instead.  This policy would not have been so damaging to developing nations, and Africa in particular, if a consistent trade policy had been followed.  But according to Thurow and Kilman:

 Hypocrisy reigned. While the United States and Europe continued to lavish subsidies on their farmers, they pushed the World Bank to prevent poor countries, particularly African nations, from doling out subsidies of their own.”

And the sad, predictable result?

 Certain that the [2002] US Farm Bill would widen their misery, Coulibaly [a Malian cotton farmer] had a news flash of his own that he wanted to send back to America: ‘We are all our brothers’ keepers,’ he said. ‘If we are not at peace here, you won’t be at peace there.’”

Now cotton farming is practiced in the south of Mali, far from where the Ansar Dine operate.  But if the Malian government in Bamako has been powerless at stopping the Al-Qaeda group, it is in large part because it is poor and without resources.  This would not be so if it could rely on a prosperous agricultural economy, based on export of cotton and other crops.

And this situation is doubly a shame because Malian farmers are leading the way in the Sahel for agricultural reforms based on ecological principles, intercropping, agro-forestry, soil organic matter management, you name it.   There have been numerous successful projects there, all the more inspiring that they owe little to western NGOs: they are locally inspired and rely on local knowledge and better policy.  Mark Hertsgaard, in his 2011 bestseller Hot: living through the next fifty years on Earth, considers this development in the Sahel remarkable grounds for optimism.  “Food yields have risen substantially; malnutrition has decreased…if some of the poorest farmers in the world can achieve so much, it suggests that the rest of us can do even more.”  Water tables have bounced back, desertification is receding.  And the soil now contains much more organic matter, which is recognized as a most effective way to combat climate change.

The surprising bottom line is this: doing away with the farm subsidies that destroy tropical agriculture would make us all – farmers, consumers, the Earth – better off.  Removing subsidies to cotton and sugar in the US, in particular, would be one of the most effective ways to reduce hunger, malnutrition, and the violence that ensues.  As well as fighting climate change, to boot.

Failing that, we are facing a stark alternative.  “If we are not at peace here, you won’t at peace there.”  The solution is clear – and it’s not even hard.


Written by enviropaul

September 22, 2012 at 6:24 pm

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