Subsidies and Food Security

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I’ve been to Australia. (That’s me hiding behind the woman in the blue top. No really, it is!)

Before I went, I thought Montana was “big country.” Not that Montana isn’t (incredibly beautiful) big country, but Australia redefines the meaning.

This trip was yet another opportunity offered to me by the Eisenhower Fellowship program. (If you know an outstanding farmer or rancher between the ages of 35 and 45, please tell them about the program. It’s a fantastic opportunity.) Because of my Fellowship, the Nuffield International Farming Scholars Program invited me to come down under and participate in the annual Contemporary Scholars Conference, held in Sydney and Canberra this year.

Big ideas for agriculture in a big country.

Surrounded by about 60 outstanding young farmers from all over the world (The Netherlands, India, UK, Ireland, France, Brazil, China, Indonesia to name a few), the richness of discussion (as you can imagine) humbled me (and, truthfully, made me realize just how ethnocentric I may be—a very good thing for my worldview). Poverty and hunger, efficiency and stewardship, a definition of sustainability, all these topics came up for debate.

You (all 12 of you that read this blog! Thanks Dad!) may be subjected to the residual thoughts from this experience for quite a while. That’s a fair disclaimer, I think.

Have you ever had two concepts that you previously believed lived independent lives suddenly crash together in your brain and form a connection completely new to you? (No? Well, that’s bit awkward for me, then. Ah well. Not the first time.) In one of my first posts to this site, I named it the Shiver of Coalescence. Well, guess what?! Oops, it happened again.

The two concepts bouncing around my brain, now linked with a flexible thought-wire, are subsidies (how’s that for a loaded word?) and food security.

Prior to March 1, I knew very little about EU subsidies for agriculture, other than the offhanded, sardonic comments from others (who, in retrospect, frankly knew about as much the topic as I did). I learned a LOT (but not nearly all there is to know—it is, as they say, complicated) about the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, a policy undergoing fairly significant change as we speak. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to explain (or defend, or for that matter, attack) it in this space. Not only am I too ignorant, I’m also too cowardly.

Learning more about debate on CAP, listening to various farmers from various EU member countries, and other countries, and thinking about my own friends in the US, set me to wondering (a dangerous pass time I try only to engage in on Saturdays).

What is the role of farmer supports in global food security, availability, affordability?

Quite a few people in my acquaintance aggressively ascribe to free markets. My trouble is, every time I ask them what that means, I get a different answer. Since I’m a big fan of precise communication (insofar as it exists) I’ve often dug further, trying to understand the concept.

Some people believe disaster relief for farmers fits rationally into free market agriculture, while some say natural disasters and the chaos they cause are all part of a free market. These ideologically pure folks might argue that a system shock such as hurricane Katrina or the devastating blizzard in the Dakotas comes as a natural part of free markets and the elimination of farms and farmers due to those shocks is just part of doing business in a free market. Others would argue that this may cause citizens to lose livelihoods, or even to go hungry, and this would not be acceptable. While some say grazing on public lands constitutes price supports, some get really, really red in the face when they hear that (like I’m-afraid-they’re-going-to-have-a-stroke-red-in-the-face.) And so on. (And on.)

I believe every government has certain responsibilities for feeding its citizens. Among these: food security, availability, and (in countries blessed enough to think about it) affordability. These responsibilities demand attention to resilience in the food system, including environmental, social, and economic factors.

Food comes from farming. Farming is an inherently risky business.

So what is the responsibility of governments, and the responsibility of private individuals or corporations, to assure this resiliency in our global food system? Or, to bring it close to home, what responsibility do we have to feed people–in our hometown, in our country, in our world? What is the right balance between independent, free markets and food security and sustainability?

Even though I’ve always considered myself a free market devotee, I’ve recently begun to think that while this creed may work in widgets, feeding people—whether in the food deserts of the U.S. or on a global scale—just isn’t that simple.

But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.” ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

“You can’t have a world where 50 percent of the people are dieting, and 50 percent of the people are starving, if you want stability.” ~John Shelby Spong

For those who have been reading this space all along (bless your hearts), here are some beautiful Australian mangoes at the vegetable market in Sydney. Very good. But…remember the mangoes I had in Taiwan? I do. Mmmmm.

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14 thoughts on “Subsidies and Food Security

  1. Polly, great blog, the quote about dieting and starving really stands out for me. Consider me one of your delighted dozen that enjoy reading your blog!!

  2. Polly, I must be the 12th person! I enjoy your thoughts, thanks for sharing them and your experiences. I’m not sure about you moving Australia ahead of Montana though!

  3. Food security can be a subset of national security strategy.think about the clash between the political system of nation states and economic value of free trade.

    • Richard, in your experience do human rights, like the right of every individual to food and water, enter into significant discussions on national security strategy? I have no experience with this type of higher level strategic decision making in the security arena and I know you do…?

  4. What a Blessing to have such wonderful people, like yourself, caring for and guiding agriculture. I believe many of us just take for granted our food is just, there, available. I live in a farm community and appreciate the hard work of American farmers. Keep up the good work!

    • Urban dictionary says only in the South does “bless your heart” mean “you’re an idiot, but I care about you and don’t want to hurt your feelings.” In northern states, it really can mean “I love you, man (even though I don’t understand your motivation for sticking with me for an entire year)!” In this case, I meant it in the northern sense, even though I have southern roots (I make some mean sweet potato biscuits and red-eye gravy, for example). Actually, I included it just to see if you are still reading, Hank! When you only have 12 readers, it’s super easy to personalize!

  5. I treasure your blogs, My husband and two other farming couples had the experience of flying to Sydney and then to New Zealand to see the area we planned. With the drought in Oklahoma it was a Pleasure from God to see the cattle in the tall green grass that didn’t even have to get up to eat. I could really live there and the people were wonderful. We also went to the
    Great Barrier Reef and other places in Australia and New Zealand. Loved feeding some Kangaroos by hand. The cattle were different breeds but did have Angus and the ones that had what looked like painted noses were precious. Please keep us all informed about your experiences so we can we them through your eyes. You are a true Leader and such a caring person.

    • You’ve made my whole week with your kind words. I also visited the Great Barrier Reef. I was stunned by the simple act of putting my masked face below the surface of the water. Incredible colors teeming with life of indescribable beauty! Whole worlds exist that we cannot see with our “regular” eyes. Also true for life, isn’t it? We need sometimes to put on a new “mask” or set of eyes to see the glorious gifts on the Earth, and even below the surface of those souls around us. Thank you so much Terry.

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