The United States, European Union and Japan have used farm subsidies to enrich large agricultural concerns in their own countries, but at the expense of small farmers from developing countries such as the Philippines. You can gain a greater perspective on this issue by accompanying me on a visit to a poor farmer in Batangas, Philippines, about two hundred kilometers south of Manila.
Bong Dumlao and his family live on a mountaintop overlooking the South China Sea where a brisk breeze blows supplying an endless stream of fresh air. The raspy sound of the wind fluttering through the towering crown of a banyan tree and ruffling coconut fawns instills a strange, tenuous serenity. Out in the distance sparsely inhabited islands dot the bright shimmering sea. There is something about the sea and fresh air that makes you sleep so deep even in the humblest of surroundings.
Bong, his wife Clara and three children live in a one room nipa hut, constructed with a bamboo frame held together by a thatched roof and walls made from the dried leaves of the nipa palm which abundantly grows in mangroves. It is finished off with a smooth, slatted bamboo floor. Nipa huts are usually elevated a few feet creating a natural convection that lowers the temperature a few degrees providing the only relief from grueling hot days and humid nights.
It is hard to imagine this small, frail home during the habagat season from June through November when the southwesterly monsoon arrives. The seas suddenly turn violent as typhoons form. During the habagat several typhoons make land fall throughout the Philippine archipelago with devastating effect. This young family huddles together for hours as torrential rains relentlessly pummel them from every direction. The howling wind whisks through their grass hut clawing at the filament and few rusty nails that hold it together. Often times these dwellings disintegrate in a few harrowing seconds leaving their terrified occupants scrambling for cover.
The habagat finally gives way to the northeasterly amihan that brings cooler air, calm seas and a six month reprieve from another typhoon season.
To reach Bong’s home I drove my four-wheel-drive SUV several kilometers along gravel and dirt roads until we reached a point where the monsoon rains had caused a massive mudslide that swallowed up the road. We then walked for more than an hour along a winding dirt path up a steep mountain side. In a small clearing sat Bong’s nipa hut.
There is no running water, electricity or any sort of plumbing. For fresh water they have to walk over a kilometer to a community well. He ekes out a living from a small plot of maize and coffee that he meticulously tends. Everything is done by hand with the assistance of the crudest tools. His farming techniques have not changed for several generations.
Clara is in her early twenty’s though she looks much older. She already has three young children with a forth already protruding from her small frame. There is no form of sex education, contraceptives or family planning practiced throughout the Philippines and much of the developing world. Countries with the highest birth rates are the least able to provide nourishment for their exploding populations.
It is likely the first time Clara conceived she had no idea what was happening to her adolescent body. Clara is barely 4’10” tall. Nutritional deficiency stunts growth. You quickly recognize the impact of hunger in poverty stricken areas.
As is customary Bong offered us food soon after our arrival with the friendly Filipino greeting “kain na” (let’s eat). The only thing Clara had to prepare was some rice that we flavored with vinegar and fiery hot chili peppers that Bong plucked from a bush nearby. We ate with our hands and drank warm Coca-Cola.
Before we could finish our meal Bong with his eyes fixed downward apologized for the few scoops of rice on our plates. On many days Bong’s family would have only one meal and many times that meal would only be rice with perhaps some salt or ground up coffee beans to mix in for flavor.
I have found those trapped in extreme poverty feel compelled to apologize. Although their dignity has been stolen by those much more powerful, they feel deeply ashamed and humiliated. It was agonizing to witness a grown man with the responsibility of a young and growing family asking for my forgiveness.
I could not keep my eyes off his children knowing they had absolutely no possibility to receive their most basic nutritional needs. Forget about access to any sort of healthcare and formal education. To make it to adulthood would already be a major achievement.
Bong and tens of millions of farmers just like him in developing countries have been robbed of their ability to a make a livable income by the governments and powerful agricultural interests of the United States, European Union and Japan. Their shackles can be found in legislation like the 2008 Farm Bill that was recently enacted by Congress.
The 2008 Farm Bill over the next five years provides $300 billion of agricultural subsidies and pork barrel projects. Even President Bush who has shown a talent for spending taxpayer money felt obliged to veto the bill as being too much pork and not enough bacon. Not to be spurned Congress with broad bi-partisan support overwhelming voted to override the President’s veto turning it into law.
It is no wonder. The agricultural lobby spends more than $100 million each year to influence Congress. They got their money’s worth. The 2008 Farm Bill provides $20 billion per year in direct agricultural price subsides. In addition it subsidizes fertilizers, pesticides and freight.
It is a misconception that farm subsidies exist to stabilize the incomes of poor American family farmers who are at the mercy of unpredictable weather and uncontrollable price fluctuations. Eligibility for subsidies has nothing to do with low incomes or poverty reduction but by the crop that is grown. Growers of corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans and rice receive 90 percent of all farm subsidies. Due to how the program is designed and administered most subsidies go to large corporations and wealthy individuals.
The top 10 percent of subsidy recipients receive 75 percent of all federal funds. Fortune 500 recipients include International Paper, Kimberly Clark, Caterpillar, John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance and Chevron. Millionaire celebrity “farmers” receiving millions in subsidies include Bob Dole, Ted Turner and Scottie Pippen.
This has become the largest corporate welfare program in the history of the United States. These subsidies have accomplished the complete opposite of their intended purpose. Instead of saving the family farmer it has provided capital for large corporations to buy out smaller farms and consolidate the industry with taxpayer money.
Farm subsidies were created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 to aid farmers barely staying alive during the Great Depression. My father’s family in West Virginia and mother’s family in Kentucky living on small family farms was most grateful in their time of need. It was a noble and necessary cause, however, like many government administered programs, it has become grossly perverted.
We are not the only guilty party. According to the World Bank the industrialized world spends nearly one billion dollars a day of taxpayer money on various types of farm subsidies. The European Union pays out $133 billion annually (France is the main beneficiary). A European cow receives more in subsidies each year than the three billion people who live on less than two dollars a day. Japan pays out $49 billion and South Korea $20 billion.
Don’t think they will be going away any time soon. The French farmers have incredible power. They can and will close down the French economy if any serious attempt is made to cut supports. Given the word to mobilize, French farmers will have their tractors at the gates of Paris shutting down the city. No politician has the guts to stand up to them.
The Japanese are also not going to budge. Agricultural subsidies underwrite the Japanese political system. They are nothing more than bribes from the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) to its core constituency, the rural communities and farmers, which in turn are funneled back to LDP politicians as contributions and kickbacks. Farm subsidies are the grease that has allowed the LDP to monopolize political power for the past 50 years.
South Korea is one of the heaviest subsidized agricultural markets in the world. Their radical farmers would actively and passionately work to assassinate any South Korean politician that attempts to dismantle agricultural subsidies and tariffs.
American and European farm subsidies allow agribusiness exporters to routinely sell their products between twenty to forty percent below the cost of production. Additionally, excess crops are purchased by the government to keep domestic prices artificially high then dumped on the world market as “food aid”. All of this paid for by the taxpayer at a time when food prices and farm profits are at a record high.
Many developing countries including the Philippines decided it was cheaper to lower import tariffs and purchase subsidized food on the international market than to invest into its farming infrastructure.
However the plan has backfired. Today governments in Asia, Africa and Latin America can not find enough food to feed their people. Since January 2007 food prices have soared by as much as sixty percent sparking riots in more than thirty countries. Thailand, the world’s largest exporter of rice, briefly restricted exports because of shortages at home. Wheat, corn and rice are at all time highs. For developing countries food has become scarce and unaffordable.
My friend Bong has no way to comprehend what he is up against. He can not compete in his local market against the heavily subsidized producers of America and Europe. He is not able to export because of the extreme tariffs levied on agricultural products by Japan and South Korea. His own government abandoned him by lowering tariffs and encouraging subsidized imports at the expense of Bong and other family farmers like him.
Due to the large increases in food and energy prices he now has to pay significantly more for less. He and his family are already on the verge of starvation before the unfolding food crisis began. What more can you take away from this family? What more do they have to give?
The road to food security is not through Free Trade as long as the United States, European Union and Japan manipulate and distort the agricultural markets with subsidies, extreme tariffs and import restrictions.
As the old adage goes; “give a man a loaf of bread and you feed him for day, teach him how to farm and you feed him for life”. You also must provide him a market.
Before we ate our meager meal, Bong said the Lord’s Prayer. The right to food is a most fundamental human right that can be found in the Lord’s Prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread” has been recited countless times but for 900 million or nearly fifteen percent of the world’s inhabitants who experience extreme hunger each day, their prayers still have not been answered.