Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Big Picture

On Friday, March 7, I will have the opportunity to present at a celebration of International Women's Day sponsored by Heifer International. Heifer is an energetic and can-do non-profit organization whose mission is "to help end world hunger and poverty through self-reliance & sustainability."

The title of the celebration is Women Farmers and Sustainable Livelihoods. And, my presentation is to be on "The Impact of U.S. Policies on Women Farmers Around the World."

Not really a topic appropriate for a lot of celebration, however.

Over the past months, I have been frustrated by the unwillingness of Congress to step up the plate and change the most inequitable aspects of U.S. farm policy by seeking major reform in the farm bill legislation; an unwillingness that seems to defy national public sentiment. And, preparation for my presentation reminded me once again of how impossible it is to justify some aspect of American farm policy.

Some overall revealing statistics:
  • The cost of the U.S. commodity support programs from 2002 through 2007 has been approximately $78.8 billion, or about $13.1 billion per year; yet 82% is spent on just five crops, with less than 40% of U.S. farmers receiving subsidies. Source: Previewing a 2007 Farm Bill, 14, Congressional Research Service (Updated Jan.3, 2007).
  • During 2003-05, the top 1% of beneficiaries received 17% of the benefits. Their average benefit was over $125,000 apiece per year. Source: Environmental Working Group Farm Program Payment database.
This is hard to celebrate, even from a domestic perspective, unless of course you are one of those receiving the big payments. But, how about the impact on women farmers throughout the world?

Consider the following passage from the Gender and Rural Poverty portal of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Throughout the developing world, rural women engage in multiple economic activities that are critical to the survival of poor households. Rural poor women play an essential role in crop production and livestock care, and they provide the food, water and fuel their families need. This is particularly the case in some of the poorest and most marginal areas characterized by extensive and increasing male migration. In these areas, agriculture has become increasingly feminized. In 1997, in fact, almost 70 per cent of the women of working age in low-income, food-deficit countries were engaged in agricultural work. At the same time, the proportion of woman-headed households continues to grow, reaching almost one third in some developing countries.

This brings up the cotton program. Although some limited reforms are proposed in the different versions of the 2007 farm bill - in recent years, the U.S. has spent an average of about $3 billion per year in support of U.S. cotton production.

The top 10% of U.S. cotton producers receive 71% of cotton subsidies; the top 1% receives 22% of subsidies. Source: Previewing a Farm Bill, 14, Congressional Research Service (Updated Jan.3, 2007); The Cotton Debate, 18 WorldView Magazine Online, citing World Bank and FAO estimates.

Without U.S. subsidies, world cotton prices could increase 5-13%. Source: CRS Report: Brazil’s WTO Case Against the U.S. Cotton Program, 2 Congressional Research Service (Updated Jan. 25, 2008); The Cotton Debate, 18 WorldView Magazine Online, citing World Bank and FAO estimates.

And, a gain of just $100 per year for a family producing cotton in West Africa would be enough to feed a child for one year or to provide schooling and health care for several children.
Source: The 2007 Farm Bill: Implications for Developing Countries, 9, International Food & Agricultural Trade Policy Council.

In 2002 Burkina Faso received $10 million in U.S. aid, but lost $13.7 million in export earnings. Also, in 2002, U.S. cotton farmers received almost $4 billion in subsidies, an amount that is 3 times greater than the entire U.S. AID’s budget for sub-Saharan Africa. Source: The Cotton Debate, 18 WorldView Magazine Online, citing World Bank and FAO estimates.

Perhaps there are some in the American agricultural community that should take to heart the Heifer International goal of "promoting self-reliance and sustainability."

Happy International Women's Day.