The State of the Union

This isn’t going to be a post going “line by line” through the President’s State of the Union address delivered one week ago. Though every columnist needed to find important things to talk about, and sometimes those things really were there, we all know that the State of the Union speech barely has a chance to walk on its own, constantly being pushed about on the wave of instant feedback by standing crowds and murmuring justices. But, at its best, the speech can force us to remember that these are our representatives and they should be talking to us. I don’t see this demand as being ‘populist,’ though that word is fashionable now, it is simply more efficient to solve problems when we talk to each other.

Which is why I must applaud Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack’s Op-Ed column in the Des Moines Register on January 31. Entitled “Rural America is in need of renewal,” the article argues that the country must appreciate the sacrifices of its farmers, recognizing that decades of a push for productivity have not served the majority of farmers well. Vilsack recommends six steps to this renewal paraphrased below;

Expand exports, promote biofuel, link local farmers to local consumers through the creation of local processing plants, provide broadband to rural areas, encourage natural recreation activity, and lastly, make the ecosystem profitable through the Ecosystem Market Office. This will create a renewal that creates a “rural America that provides safe and abundant food for us and the world, puts America back in control of its energy future, and preserves and conserves our precious natural resources.”

So compare that to the 50-Year Farm Bill of Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry (a soil scientist and a farmer). The idea that we can both preserve our natural resources and benefit from markets “that exist for water, wetlands preservation, carbon and habitat enhancements” would not find its way into that 50-Year Farm Bill. The idea may not be that sinister, tax incentives to conserve water would help encourage responsible behavior, but the discourse being created and sustained is a dangerous one that tries to impose a supply and demand theory onto the ecosystem. Jackson, in fact, argues for the opposite approach, using the ecosystem to provide us with a new way of thinking of economic growth. And furthermore, Vilsack’s resources remain poorly defined and their defense is unspecified. So we can promote biofuel production without understanding how these monocrops damage our soil.

And what of these expanded exports? It worries me when I hear talk of our duty to help rebuild Haiti with shipments of fertilizer and seeds for cash crops (see the Monday editorial “Thinking About a New Haiti” in The New York Times). At home we promote, or at least Vilsack says he does, linking farms to local consumers but in underdeveloped nations we envision an agricultural system growing only coffee to supply global markets but not themselves. The presence of our exports feeds directly into this process of creating dependent developing nations. When Obama mentioned his commitment to the Doha trade agreements in order to bolster rural jobs in America, he talked about our trading partners playing by the rules. But what are those rules? A 2006 document published by the Third World Network Director Martin Khor details the obstacles of international trade negotiation and the damage they do to underdeveloped economies. “The WTO’s Doha Negotiations and Impasse: A Development Perspective” discusses the funny business of subsidies; Blue, Green, Amber, Trade-Distorting, or Non-Trade Distorting. In short: Blue Box subsidies are considered trade-distorting and set limits on production, Green Box subsidies are considered non-trade distorting and provide things like “payments to farmers to protect the environment,” Amber Box subsidies are considered trade distorting in that they regulate prices, and lastly, “de minis support” provide trade-distorting government support. In short, the Western parties at the World Trade Organization push developing nations to cut and minimize subsidies even as the E.U. and United States provide subsidies for their farmers. “Thus the developed countries will be able to continue to dump products that are subsidised at artificially low prices onto the poorer countries that cannot afford to subsidise.” Of course, the W.T.O. does not act alone and has been aided through World Bank programs in the past which provide conditional loans to developing countries mandating that they privatize and limit government capabilities. The issue of increasing exports must be understood in this context. If we want to help rebuild Haiti, perhaps we should consider rewriting trade policies.

And I don’t think I need to tell the Slow Food crowd that biofuel production, while potentially important, cannot come above our commitment to local, sustainable farm communities. Perhaps it is Vilsack who needs to better understand and appreciate the incredible impact a farmer can have on the environment, on his or her community, and on the geopolitical global stage.

Read it for yourself:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *