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America’s True Trade Experts

Do small U.S. farmers have more expertise on international trade than U.S. Representatives?

June 26, 2000

Do small U.S. farmers have more expertise on international trade than U.S. Representatives?

For all their rhetorical flourish, Washington politicians do not depend on understanding, say, the development needs of China for their own livelihood. Nor do they need to think hard about what population growth in emerging markets could mean for global demand for certain agricultural products. But farmers need to be world-savvy — and therefore often are true internationalists.

The same logic applies to loftier policy issues as well. When emergency loans are granted by the IMF to countries in crisis, for example, it isn’t just Washington’s policy elites who notice. Rather, it is farmers from Nebraska or Kansas who have a keen interest in whether the IMF will get the job done.

It is no accident that it is often the Senators and Congressmen from the “Corn Belt” — the states which tend to push their isolationist-minded colleagues to be more open to the rest of the world. This applies to new trade agreements as well as to funding the IMF.

IMF emergency loans to developing counties generally seem to be a “waste of money” to (mostly Republican) politicians serving in the U.S. Congress. In sharp contrast, U.S. family farmers often have a very personal stake in these programs’ success. They may lose an important export market for their crops if emerging market economies founder.

Also, they do not have the deep pockets of large agribusiness corporations to survive such slumps in worldwide demand. For small farmers, a strong world economy can make the difference between staying in business — and being forced into insolvency.

The problem is that, despite all efforts to the contrary, the American family farmer — forever enshrined in the U.S. psyche by Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic — is dying out. More and more, farming is dominated by a few agribusiness firms. At a minimum, this trend changes the political equation for U.S. trade negotiators.

In the past, when small farmers suffered some sort of injustice, they could always hope for a sympathetic ear. But what if the sole beneficiaries of U.S. policy are mega-corporations? That is increasingly the case. It seems naive to think that the U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky would be any less vigilant in the defense of the interests of big agribusiness firm than of those of the family farmer.

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