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.