Thursday, November 15, 2007

The U.S. and cotton subsidies: They giveth but they don't taketh

The answer is No.

That’s what Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compoare should have said to Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte during his Tuesday visit to Ouagadougou. As a way to patch over differences regarding cotton subsidies, Negroponte claimed the U.S. government will work extra hard to place Burkina Faso cotton on the U.S. market:

"We have worked with certain parties, notably the farmers, to see how to arrange contacts with American operators to place Burkinabe cotton on the American market - particularly the very high quality cotton that you produce here," he told the BBC.

It was the first peep from a U.S. official after the World Trade Organization up-held a previous ruling filed by Brazil that claims U.S. cotton subsidies unfairly depress world prices. According to the Environmental Working Group, the U.S. government has handed over $19.1 billion in subsidies to cotton farmers between 1995 and 2005.

As the WTO announced its decision in mid-October, Congress began debating the 2007 Farm Bill. These five-year plans of financial outlay and agriculture programs contain the controversial (and now illegal) agriculture subsidies. However, the Bill in its current form on the Senate floor leaves cotton subsidy program largely intact. (The Bush administration has threatened to veto the bill if the subsidies remain in the bill.)

Negroponte visited Ouagadougou while on a five-nation West African tour. In Ouagadougou, he also claimed that the U.S. would not consider repealing cotton subsidies until the European Union also did the same.


"In the framework of the Doha Round negotiations, we have clearly indicated that we are ready to reduce our farms subsidies on the condition that our European Union partners can equally make the same gesture so we can work together in this direction," Negroponte said.

The tortuous Doha trade talks, dubbed the "Development Round" for their declared focus on the need to boost exports from the developing world, have already dragged on nearly three years past the deadline originally agreed in Qatar in 2001 with no guarantees a deal will be reached.

The BBC story provides a helpful statistic: European Cotton runs roughly to the tune of 6 percent of American cotton. The U.S., on the other hand, maintains its role as the world’s second largest grower of cotton (behind China) making up 40 percent of the world cotton market.

I’ve complained loudly about the fact that Burkina Faso – and other West African cotton producers – must reform their cotton sectors which steal and rob from the region’s cotton farmers. However, underlying my logic is the fact that U.S. subsidies irreparably harm the world cotton price. Cotton farmers in the U.S states have grown too much cotton for world production since the beginning of this new century.

There’s another argument: If this government cares anything about how it’s perceived abroad – and it most likely doesn’t – this proves to knee-jerk anti-Americanists that the U.S. is a government of hypocrites. This is not an anti-Bush rant. Democrats in Congress should also take the blame. The U.S. government forces free-trade down the throats of the developing world with one hand while writing checks to corporations to grow cotton with the other.

Talk about having it both ways.

I've got a better idea, Negroponte. It's time to begin phasing out the illegal subsidies. Have a shred of pride.

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