Politics & Policy

Political Food Folly

Putting food on the negotiating table.

India has rip-off drug makers, China sweatshop textile tycoons, southern Africa its mineral magnates, and all, naturally, have different concerns when it comes to World Trade Organization negotiations. But in global public-policy terms, there is one issue that pulls all developing countries together, and nearly everyone in the rich world too–the misery caused by Western agricultural subsidies.

Until 2001 there was little chance of improvement, owing to French and German intransigence and developing-country disorganization. But things began to improve at the 2001 Doha WTO summit and then in 2002 at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development: when developing countries finally agreed to fight the West’s protection of its farmers. President Bush’s rhetoric extols free trade but his farm bill continues to support wealthy U.S. farmers. Nevertheless, there has been a continual, if slothful, move in among richer countries to reduce their farm subsidies, since issues of food security (which was the main justification for subsidies in the first place) have receded.

But not all food subsidies are so obviously odious. Many subsidies funded by the world’s taxpayers are designed to increase access of the poorest of the poor to basic nutrition. For example recent food aid and funding from the rich world’s aid agencies to southern Africa has saved millions from malnourishment. However, some countries, such as Zambia, are still being picky about the food aid they accept and are actively harming their citizens.

There are less-obvious subsidy failures as well. Unfortunately, according to Per Pinstrup Andersen, the 2001 World Food Laureate, many subsidy programs are defended on the basis that they help the poorest, but instead often just help the middle classes. I first spoke to Dr. Andersen in 2002, and I recently spoke with him again.

Dr. Andersen, who has worked on food-policy issues for 32 years, says that in the early 1990s the Egyptian government spent 25 percent of its annual budget on providing food either for free, or very cheaply, to the poor. But the subsidy rolled into the pockets of well-off farmers and other middlemen, meaning the poor gained little from the program. Andersen and other policy experts encouraged the Egyptian government to redirect the funds, so now the subsidies are at a far lower overall level and the poor have greater access to food. For this and other work Andersen won the World Food Prize.

However, the problem of allocating funds to the correct people is sometimes the death knell of programs. Under pressure from Andersen, the Colombian government’s allocation was successfully retargeted away from special interests and towards the poor. But the program was cancelled when the politicians responsible for it changed portfolio. Andersen says that owing to this experience he now reluctantly endorses programs where some political constituency (like farmers) benefits by extending the subsidy.

In 2002 Andersen was concerned that the Zambian president decided not to allow genetically modified food aid. At the time, agriculture minister Mundia Sikatana said, “In view of the current scientific uncertainty surrounding the issue…[the] government has decided to base its decision not to accept GM foods in Zambia on the precautionary principle.” Andersen said that the Zambian government was being “unreasonable” since the government has been using the food to feed Angolan refugees in the country. Today he still believes this to be the case.

The refusal sparked a fierce debate in the capital, Lusaka, with opposition politicians coming out against the decision. Thousands of tons of American food aid were removed from the country–aid workers were taking food away from the mouths of starving children. This was just one more example of the folly of the “precautionary principle,” and how it is killing poor people in Africa.

When I spoke with the head of U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, in 2002 he dismissed any notion that the Zambians had made the right choice. He was clear: “it’s their choice to make, but we’ve been eating and shipping this food around the globe for seven years, there is no real risk.” Furthermore, he had offered the Zambians wheat and sorghum. Unlike American corn, which is not separated between non-GM and GM, GM-free wheat and sorghum could have been provided, but “they wanted corn,” said an obviously exasperated Natsios.

So the Zambian government demanded corn when there were alternatives, later decided not to accept it, so harming hundreds of thousands of severely malnourished people. Back then I said that “President Levy Mwanawasa does not yet have the dastardly track record of his southern neighbor, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, but many more policy decision like this and he will deserve the same international opprobrium.” Today he does deserve the disdain of international media and especially his own people, since perhaps as many as 20,000 Zambians died as a result of his policies.

Subsidies, and especially food aid, have their place, but they are often captured by vested interests, or emasculated by crazy policy decisions. In the past ten years over 14 billion GM meals have been eaten by Americans with no ill effect. But in the perverse world of public policy that hasn’t mattered a great deal. The forces of stupidity and malign political self-interest continue to hold sway in many parts of Africa, undermining the good work their politicians are doing to reduce Western agricultural subsidies.

Dr. Roger Bate is a visiting fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.

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