This is important. And shameful.
The developed world funnels nearly $1 billion a day in subsidies to its farmers, encouraging overproduction. That drives down prices and leaves farmers in poor nations unable to compete with subsidized products, even within their own countries. In recent years, American farmers have dumped cotton and other products on world markets at prices that do not begin to cover their cost of production. Europe's system is even worse; the United States' farm subsidies are only a third of Europe's.
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The United States trade representative, Robert Portman, took a big step toward doing the right thing earlier this month when he proposed that the United States would slash allowable farm subsidies by 60 percent if Europe and Japan would cut their subsidies by 83 percent. . . .
Given all the noise the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his European colleagues have made about the need to "make poverty history," you would think that the Europeans would jump at the American proposal. Think again. In Europe, farmers are apparently terrified of having to compete without the government around to hold their hands.
So the European Union has not only not made a meaningful counteroffer, but France - the worst of a bad lot - is also doing everything it can to get in the way of even the anemic talk of compromise from the European Union's trade chief, Peter Mandelson. "If you don't believe in trade, then why are you a member of the W.T.O.?" a frustrated Mr. Portman asked rhetorically. Funny, we were just wondering that ourselves.
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The lawmakers in Congress who coddle rich American corporate farmers - often to the detriment of small family farmers - are not helping things. The Senate Agriculture Committee just voted to extend the subsidies paid to growers of cotton, rice and other commodities until 2011, subsidies that were supposed to expire in the 2007 farm bill. This political move is made worse by sneaking the subsidies into a budget bill rather than properly debating them as part of the farm bill.
The Bush administration has done a good job so far in opposing these myriad forms of agribusiness welfare. The United States trade negotiators say the Senate Agriculture Committee's move will make their job at the trade organization talks more difficult. It's hard to preach the free trade gospel abroad when lawmakers at home are busily taking care of their own special interests.