I was browsing through the NY Times yesterday and came across an interesting if disturbing article on the current food crisis. This particular article drew a connection between global warming and a shortage of rice. Fair enough. But what is more interesting is the following tidbit, tucked away in the article, far from the headline:
“The global agricultural crisis is threatening to become political, pitting the United States and other developed countries against the developing world over the need for affordable food versus the need for renewable energy. Many poorer nations worry that subsidies from rich countries to support biofuels, which turn food, like corn, into fuel, are pushing up the price of staples.”
Again, this is a completely fair point. Subsidies for biofuel, in particular corn-based ethanol are one of the worst ideas I’ve ever come across. (Beet ethanol is perhaps another matter). But honestly: would the Times have us believe that biofuel subsidies are the only ones that pit the developing world against the rich countries? I can’t imagine ANY agricultural subsidies in the, EU or Japan are very popular among the world’s poor.
Unfortunately, they are currently very popular among American politicians, especially Democrats. It’s all too easy to see why. Nothing gets votes like the promise of subsidies for you and higher tariffs for your foreign competitors. When you consider that Iowa is among the greatest beneficiaries of agricultural subsidies, then it becomes obvious why virtually every presidential candidate this year has spoken favorably of such subsidies, usually well bashing NAFTA and/or immigrants. Brazilian beet-farmers, on the other hand, can’t caucus in Iowa. Even Ox-Fam is mostly run by Brits.
I often wonder why this issue doesn’t get more press. Isn’t this as important as who is bitter, whose pastor said what, etc, etc? If one believes, as I do, that agricultural subsidies and tariffs contribute to the appalling gap between rich and poor countries, then one ought to demand better of our politicians and our press.
The contrast between the three major candidates could hardly be greater. Both Obama and Clinton have campaigned against free-trade, and both would undoubtedly continue the subsidies that pit the haves against the have-nots. (They will, of course, do this out of altruistic concern for the well-being of American farmers!) You can’t really blame them for it. As I said before, virtually every major candidate promised more biofuel subsidies while campaigning in Iowa. The one exception was Senator John McCain of Arizona, who told Iowans bluntly that he did not and would not support such subsidies. Anyone who truly cares about closing the global wealth gap ought to keep this in mind in November.