Cotton farmers in Africa work their fields by hand, without the tractors and irrigation systems of their wealthier Western counterparts. If there’s a drought, there’s no cotton. If monkeys or worms destroy their crops, there’s no cotton. And if there’s no cotton that means there is no food, education, clothing, or healthcare for farmers’ families.
The plight of cotton farmers is not the typical story of poverty and disease. It is the story of the ramifications of U.S. farming subsidies on cotton farming communities around the world and it is of particular importance right now because the current Farm Bill is scheduled to expire in 2007. As Congress reviews farm policy, the global ramifications of the Farm Bill should be taken into account, as well as the affect of farm subsidies on small farmers right here in America.
Let’s look at Mali as an example. Malian cotton farmers are dependent on the whims of the world market because fifty percent of Malian exports depend on cotton. When American farmers are subsidized for commodity crops such as corn, rice, cotton, soy, and wheat, they receive payments based on their level of production. The more they produce the more they are paid, independent of market needs. When the surplus cotton produced by American farmers hits the world market, it drives down the prices which farmers in countries like Mali can get for their cotton.
What does this mean?
It means that farming communities in the developing world struggle to meet basic needs like food, water, adequate shelter, and access to healthcare, while multi-million and billion dollar agribusinesses here in the U.S. thrive.
One way cotton farming communities in the developing world have survived are by starting organic and fair trade cotton farming cooperatives, where farmers are paid premiums for their cotton. Companies in Europe and the U.S. pay top dollar for the organic cotton, but because of the high prices of these products it is still a small market.
Even small farmers I have spoken to in the U.S., some of whom receive subsidies themselves, say they do not like receiving them because it is a form of welfare.
So, who wins if U.S. taxpayer dollars continue to subsidize big farmers to the detriment of small farmers and their counterparts in the developing world?
Not the small farmers that the subsidies were created to protect. Not the farmers in the developing world who depend on cotton for export. But the large companies who continue to consolidate farms and distort world markets, all to line their own pockets.