Monday, July 31, 2006

Food aid and the collapse of the Doha Round

The Food Safety and Nutrition Section, in collaboration with the International Section, hosted a fascinating panel on food aid at the annual meeting of the American Agricultural Economics Association last week. My Friedman School colleague Patrick Webb described the increasing professionalism of the food aid community, and the increasing importance of emergency food to alleviate crises, in place of food aid as a form of agricultural dumping. Other participants included Terri Raney from the Food and Agriculture Organization, Chris Barrett from Cornell, and Linda Young from Montana State.

Barrett's book with Dan Maxwell last year raised many of the critical problems with U.S. food aid programs. Even while acknowledging those problems, Young makes an eloquent argument against using the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a way of "disciplining" food aid to solve them (see this .pdf file for some of her themes). As she tells it, the WTO shows symptoms of being more interested in protecting export markets for rich countries than it really is in protecting farmers in poor countries from dumping. In some of the lively back and forth discussion, Barrett and Young both seemed to agree on the need for some sort of trade discipline to make sure countries don't return to their old practices of using food aid for surplus disposal rather than humanitarian purposes. At the same time, they both appeared to recommend some method other than the WTO, such as perhaps an expanded version of the Food Aid Convention, to impose the necessary disciplines.

Of course, all of this may be moot, since the Doha round of WTO trade negotiations collapsed this month. This collapse gets interesting coverage from many sources including Time and Reason. The latter magazine writes:
Who does the U.S. trade delegation represent when it refuses to budge on farm subsidies and market access? Certainly not American taxpayers or consumers. Farm subsidies cost taxpayers about $19 billion last year. For their money, consumers got the privilege of paying more for some food because farm supports (and quotas on some imports, such as sugar) distort markets.

Much of U.S. agricultural policy is designed to protect the interests of a small number of large and wealthy producers. Laws originally passed to aid small farmers during the Depression now result in astonishing inequities and are often counterproductive. The Washington Post recently revealed that the federal government has paid at least $1.3 billion since 2000 to people who don't farm at all — they simply happen to own property that was once used as a farm. Meanwhile, real farmers who rent cropland are being forced out of business by landowners who find it more profitable to use their property for other purposes while continuing to collect federal cash for crops they aren't growing.

Ending these subsidies and lowering agricultural tariffs would boost the U.S. economy, eliminate waste and help farmers in the Third World trade their way out of poverty. It's a shame Washington thinks that its protectionist farm policies are something to be surrendered only grudgingly, and only if others do so. Good riddance, we say.