Originally published at Worldwatch Institute Nourishing the Planet.
How do agricultural policies affect the local and global market?
Over the past 10 to 12 years, I’ve spent a majority of my time peripherally involved with the U.S. Farm Bill. And we at the IATP have been leaders in pointing out some of the dumping issues of U.S. farm prices.
In the 1980s, both in the United States and elsewhere, farmers were suffering from low prices that were well below what the market should bear in terms of the cost of producing corn, soybeans, cotton, and rice—the basic commodities. U.S. agricultural policies have helped drive down the price of commodities so low that it has created a lot of problems for U.S. farmers, and the way we make up for that problem is with the government payment program. So it costs taxpayers quite a bit to support such low prices.
And what has largely gone unforeseen is how the dumping—that is, selling agricultural commodities well below the cost of production—on international markets has had a tremendous impact on farmers around the world, because there is no way they can compete with these dumped commodities priced so low. There has been pretty good documentation in the past three years of the depopulation of the Mexican countryside and the impact of the U.S. dumping of corn on Mexico, which NAFTA has contributed significantly to. This dumping has driven a lot of Mexican campesinos into Mexico City or across the border because there is no viable economy anymore for agricultural production in much of Mexico.
So that has been a key point for us at IATP, and we have had a few reports over the years trying to quantify how much is being dumped. But this is very difficult, because there are very different prices in terms of the costs of production per good and comparing that to the market rate. Dumping results from a variety of policies, many of which are in the Farm Bill, but also many other policies that have driven U.S. production of a few commodities at the expense of locally grown food.
The U.S. has created some policies—such as crop insurance—that have created undue incentives for producing a few commodities: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice. These commodities have received federal support, at the expense of the opportunities in local markets. The challenge that many local farmers in, for example, Minnesota face is that it is much more expensive for farmers who are doing direct marketing to have insurance on their crops than it is for a farmer selling a commodity.
What are the major obstacles that farmers practicing organic and/or sustainable methods face? How does U.S. agricultural policy affect them?
First off, in terms of how we spend our research dollars through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then subsequently through land-grant universities—such a small component goes to the local organic and sustainable agricultural realm. The progress that has been made in local and sustainable agriculture in the past 30 years is really remarkable, given the lack of federal support for it and the continued heavy federal support for commodity crops like corn and beans that are already doing fine. There is also a lot of agribusiness investment in those crops.
It makes you question why we are not putting more research dollars into the next generation of crops that will provide more opportunities for farmers. We have really been behind in terms of agricultural research. There could be so much more organic and sustainable production if we had provided those research dollars years ago.
The GMO [genetically modified organism] issue is going to be an even stronger challenge for organic farmers. Cross-contamination issues and problems like that—it seems like you hear about a new crop or concern every other month. Getting to some form of resolution about this in terms of maintaining the integrity of the organic label while also penalizing organic farmers for things beyond their control is a challenging policy question.
Over the last 10 years, it’s been great to see, especially here in Minneapolis, the remarkable growth in the ability for people to buy organic food. That has happened by on-the-ground grassroots movements and people demanding these crops. I think the market is growing well at the local level but that there are still challenges, especially with organic commodities. One thing they are trying to figure out is price mechanisms: how to get a set price for organic products, and how that price differs from commodity prices of, say, corn. I think there is still some room for developing a fleshed-out market for commodities.
Do you think it is possible for the U.S. food system to be converted to organic and sustainable agricultural practices and still feed everyone?
I think it is definitely possible, but it will be a long-term transition; it’s not going to happen in the next year or next five years. I think it is somewhat inevitable that we are going in that direction.
It is often put back upon us: if you shift to organic practices, how are you going to feed the world? How are we going to maintain the doubling or tripling of yields by 2050? I really feel like we haven’t given it a fair chance yet. There are tremendous opportunities, through innovative permaculture practices and other approaches that we haven’t tapped into yet, to increase yields and production dramatically. We can do a lot with organic production that hasn’t come to the forefront yet, and we will have the opportunity to produce a lot.
In terms of long-term viability, given the soil and water issues, we can’t keep on the chemical path too long. We need to become wiser with agriculture. It might not be a certified organic agriculture that emerges from this; it might be some sort of a hybrid middle ground. It might not get to the point where everyone is buying organic salad dressing. We have to be flexible and realize that the solution might not be to have everything certified organic.
Read the rest of the interview at Worldwatch Institute Nourishing the Planet.