Trade trumps aid

July 10, 2005

THE UNITED States is by far the largest donor of food aid to Africa and other parts of the world in emergency or chronic need. But charity is mostly an afterthought.

The hapless and hungry overseas represent a huge market for the American farm and food processing industry - mostly agribusiness conglomerates. So jealous is the industry of the $1 billion to $2 billion it is paid annually for relief shipments of rice, corn, soybeans and other commodities that when President Bush proposed to send cash when it's quicker to buy food near folks in need, the farm lobby in Congress balked.

Such greed contaminating an aid program only hints at the howls awaiting Mr. Bush if he tries to eliminate taxpayer subsidies paid to American farmers that enable them to flood the market with goods so cheap farmers in developing countries can't compete.

And yet eliminating farm subsidies not only in the United States but in Europe is considered the single most important step wealthy nations can take toward lifting countries in Africa and elsewhere out of poverty. Debt relief, development assistance, AIDS and malaria drugs, infrastructure improvements - all are critical needs. But none more so than helping people to feed and sustain themselves.

Mr. Bush committed himself at the just concluded meeting of G-8 leaders in Scotland to work with his European colleagues to eliminate farm subsidies by 2010. But opposition to setting a deadline from French President Jacques Chirac blunted the signal that Africa advocacy groups had been hoping would be strong enough to shape trade reforms to be taken up later this year by the World Trade Organization.

In France, as in the United States, farmers have political clout disproportionate to their numbers or share of the economy. Wrangling over crop subsidies has long been among the thorniest aspects of trade negotiations.

Mr. Bush should undertake reform of the agriculture aid program in this country in any case. It would pay rich benefits for American consumers, who now subsidize farmers through taxes.

And if Mr. Bush's goal is truly to help African nations become self-sufficient, it makes little sense to give them food but prevent them from making a go of their own agriculture industry.

Thriving farms are invaluable everywhere for economic, environmental and security reasons. But the giant agribusinesses are squeezing out small, family operations in this country with just as much menace as they crush foreign competition.

Mr. Bush and his G-8 colleagues should summon up the courage to kick these conglomerates off the dole. In this instance, charity should not begin at home.

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