Posts tagged with: farm subsidies

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the annual conference of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and expressed particular concern over rising food prices and the instability of the global food market. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, the pope issued this challenge: “The problem of food insecurity needs to be addressed within a long-term perspective, eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries.”

Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg has done much to illuminate those structural causes and their effects on the agricultural capacity of developing countries. In an interview with EWTN two months ago, he talked about two of the most important drivers of high food prices: farm subsidies and energy costs.

“All the subsidies that go into agriculture—through things like import taxes and tariffs, as well as direct subsidies—have the paradoxical effect of reducing the incentive for investment in agriculture in developing countries,” said Dr. Gregg. African farmers cannot compete with their counterparts in the first world who are able to sell their produce at artificially low prices, and so developing countries end up turning away from food production. In the long run, this decrease in supply causes prices to rise.

Energy prices also affect the cost of food: the more a farmer pays for gasoline, the more he has to recoup from the sale of his crops. Again, market imbalances are causing prices to rise—OPEC, the cartel that controls a substantial amount of the world’s crude oil, determines its supply, and so “there’s a disparity between supply and demand,” Dr. Gregg explained. “OPEC and other oil-producing countries introduce a whole range of price distortions into the energy sector, resulting in higher prices”

U.S. energy policy is also to blame: from drilling moratoriums to ethanol subsidies, the federal government has effectively introduced inefficiency to energy markets.

Developing countries must be allowed to produce food without being undercut by Western protectionism and too-costly energy. When free markets are hindered, the poor suffer most.

In an article appearing on EWTN News, Acton Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, is interviewed on rising food prices and the effect on the developing world. In this article, Dr. Gregg contributed to a broad discussion on the many factors contributing to the rising food prices.

He advocates for a free market economy in agriculture by discussing the effects agricultural subsides in Europe and the United State, and how these market distortions contribute to stifling the growth of agriculture in the developing world. Furthermore, the effects of the oil industry on food prices is also discussed along with Pope Benedict’s call for the need to address the problems of food insecurity in Caritas in Veritate.

Developing world’s food crisis seen as a ripple effect of over-regulation

By Benjamin Mann

The dramatic rise in global food prices was high on the agenda of the 2011 World Economic Forum on Africa, held from May 4–6 in Cape Town, South Africa. According to a leading Catholic economist, excessive government regulations are to blame for the rise in prices.

A complex combination of factors – including natural disasters and higher oil prices, as well as a rising standard of living in countries like China, India and Brazil – have made food less affordable in recent months.

The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization has warned that the “food price shock” could have devastating effects upon the world’s poorest people.

At meetings in Cape Town, South Africa this week, African leaders discussed a “road map” to help the continent cope with rising prices through market-based approaches that would encourage local agriculture.

Some factors behind higher food prices, such as natural disasters, cannot be controlled. But Dr. Samuel Gregg, an economist at Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, said other factors – especially agricultural subsidies and the manipulation of oil supplies – were preventing poorer countries from bringing their productive capacities to bear in the global market.

The result, he told EWTN News on May 6, is an under-supply of food, and higher prices.

“All the subsidies that go into agriculture – through things like import taxes and tariffs, as well as direct subsidies – have the paradoxical effect of reducing the incentive for investment in agriculture in developing countries,” Gregg observed.

Without the ability to sell their products at competitive prices on the global market, these countries end up producing less food, and attracting fewer investors.

“They end up saying, ‘We can’t compete because of subsidies in the European Union and the United States.’ Consequently, the supply of food starts to be reduced, because there isn’t the incentive for agricultural investment.”

“This effort to protect American and European farmers has the unintended consequence of reducing the supply of agricultural products from other people.”

He said farm subsidies, going mainly to large corporations rather than individual growers, were a “very good example” of how “a government program can have a completely unintended negative effect” on a critical area of the world economy.

If the barriers to competition were lifted, Gregg said, developing countries could attract more investment and increase their own productive capacities, to cope with global demand and bring food prices down.

But agricultural subsidies have the backing of powerful interest groups, and are often perceived as vital to the national interest.

Gregg also holds oil-exporting nations of OPEC responsible for high fuel prices that translate into more expensive food.

“The energy sector of the economy is not a free market – it’s a cartel,” he stated. “That’s something to keep in mind with all discussion about energy prices. This is why we worry about what OPEC is going to set as the price for gas, or for the production of barrels of oil.”

“It’s not the market that is controlling the price, for the most part. Generally speaking, it’s a cartel – which means that OPEC and other oil-producing countries introduce a whole range of price-distortions into the energy sector, resulting in higher prices.”

Oil prices, he said, “don’t reflect the true state of supply and demand.” Rather, Gregg said, they tend to reflect the will of countries exporting oil, and the inefficiency of frequently nationalized oil production.

Elsewhere, government regulations surrounding the refinement of oil into gas also play a role in raising prices, when refining capacity fails to keep pace with crude oil supply.

“There’s plenty of oil,” Gregg stated. “The problem is, there’s a disparity between supply and demand.” Meanwhile, this imbalance in the oil market has a ripple effect. “Just as energy prices go up,” he explained, “so do food costs.”

Another obstacle to meeting rising demand for food may come from ideological opposition to genetically-modified crops.

“There are all sorts of restrictions in place around the world, upon the development of genetically modified food,” Gregg noted. Genetic modification is highly controversial, and skeptics worry such crops could harm local ecosystems or human health.

But Gregg said that these concerns had to be weighed against the world’s urgent food needs, given that genetic modification could enable crops to be grown “in conditions where they might not otherwise be able to be produced.”

Many of these crops are also designed to resist natural occurrences – such as droughts, floods, and disease – that destabilize food prices.

“There’s no question that if more countries were enabled by law to engage in genetically modified agriculture, the supply of food would go up, and prices would come down,” he observed.

Gregg’s advocacy of what he called a “true free market in agriculture,” geared toward attracting investment in the developing world, reflects priorities that Pope Benedict XVI outlined in his 2008 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.”

In that encyclical, the Pope said that “the problem of food insecurity” had to be addressed by “eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it, and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries.”

“This can be done,” the Pope wrote, “by investing in rural infrastructures, irrigation systems, transport, organization of markets, and in the development and dissemination of agricultural technology.”

Pope Benedict stated said the developing world’s most urgent need in this area was “a network of economic institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food.”

Gregg believes a general draw-down of government involvement in agriculture, as well as energy, would allow these kinds of economic institutions to develop locally and compete globally.

The result would be a boost in developing countries’ food production capacity, and more affordable food for the world.

“Obviously you need some kind of regulatory framework,” Gregg said. “But if it were a less onerous regulatory framework, and different groups weren’t trying to influence the process for political and ideological reasons, I think you’d find that the price of food – and the price of energy – would fall.”

Read more:

I take a look at the way corn subsidies skew our eating habits — and not always for the good of our health — in this week’s Acton Commentary. Excerpt:

Government policy-makers regularly prove themselves to be unwise decision-makers by continuing to introduce arbitrary agricultural price distortions that create incentives for producing unhealthy food through farm subsidies. Perhaps the most effective national health care initiative moving forward would be allowing markets to function so that people can make better food choices.

We cannot be good stewards of our bodies or nature if we do not have accurate information. Prices help to convey that information. For example, what would happen if the market determined actual corn prices? Not subsidizing corn would cause a needed price correction. Perhaps our hamburger value-meals would adjust in price creating disincentives to eat fast-food. Without corn and other agricultural subsidies, maybe the price of meat would adjust to a point encouraging different choices benefiting us all in the long-run. Maybe, for example, eating a 72-once steak at the Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, Texas would be too expensive to consider.

While individuals are ultimately responsible to exercise good stewardship in choosing what and how much to eat, incentives can be distorted by government meddling in the market. Dr. Barry Sears, author of Toxic Fat: When Good Fat Turns Bad, argues, “The problem lies with America’s continually subsidizing of corn and soybean production.” Government subsidies generate “an oversupply of cheap refined carbohydrates and cheap vegetable oils that when combined give rise to increased diet-induced inflammation.” This inflammation in turn “activates the genes in people who are genetically predisposed to gain weight with relative ease,” giving rise to all the health problems connected to excessive weight. Medical spending for obesity is estimated to have reached $147 billion in 2008, an 87 percent increase in the past decade.

Read “Too Much Government Makes Us Sick” on the Acton Web site and come back here for comments.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 17, 2007

Late last Friday the US Senate passed a federal farm subsidies bill, amounting to over $286 billion over five years.

For the first time funding has been extended to new areas like support for fruits and vegetables. That $3 billion of the bill is not direct aid, but rather is marked for “research, marketing, farm markets and providing fruits and vegetables to more school children.”

So perhaps you can expect the federal government, as any good nanny state should, to fund initiatives mimicking this to convince your children that “carrots want to go to the party in your tummy.” (Hey, it works on my 2 and a half year-old.)

David Gavin, a fruit and vegetable farmer in Michigan, says of dependence on federal subsidies, “When you look at how much is spent, you start scratching your head. I’m glad we (fruit and vegetable growers) haven’t gone down that road. Once you get to a certain size, I think you can afford to do it on your own.”

And by the way, you can check out a brief interview I did yesterday morning on the topic of farm subsidies with Charlotte, NC talk radio station WBT 1110-AM here, based in part on the Acton Commentary Ray Nothstine and I wrote a few weeks back.

See also: Jimmy Carter, “Subsidies’ Harvest of Misery,” Washington Post

In one of this week’s Acton Commentaries, Ray Nothstine and I juxtapose a static, sedentary dependence on government subsidies with a dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit of innovation.

The impetus for this short piece was an article that originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press (linked in the commentary). I have two things to say about these stories and then I want to add some further reflections on the world of agricultures subsidies.

First, I found the article’s “hook” to be quite shoddy and lame. The blatant attempt to “shock” the reader into a reaction of disgust that a billionaire like Dick DeVos, yes, “that Dick DeVos,” got a whopping “$6,000 in federal farm subsidies from 2003 to 2005.” That’s roughly $2k a year for three years.

Unsurprisingly, DeVos’ spokesperson didn’t know anything about it. It’s ludicrous to think that a guy with as much on his plate as Dick DeVos would have any time for what is essentially pocket change for a billionaire. Does the fact that DeVos got a subsidy even though he campaigned on eliminating government waste make him a hypocrite?

Judge for yourself, but I think these payments say more about the government’s inefficiency and waste than they do about DeVos’ integrity. People of all income brackets pay tax professionals to maximize their returns. For the very wealthy, it’s simply a process that’s on a bigger scale, that’s much more thorough, and with many more loopholes than when you or I go to H&R Block. The more diversified your holdings, the more likely there are a plethora of tax breaks for you to exploit. The breathless lede to this story was simply off-putting to me, especially given the rather clear political undertones of the insinuations.

“Simplify, man.”

What’s the real lesson? As a recycling hippie once told The Simpsons‘ Principal Skinner in a quite different context, “Simplify, man.” Simplify the tax code and eliminate all these special interest loopholes.

But the complaint about the story’s hook is really a minor quibble compared to my second point. In a companion piece, Lisa Rose Starner, executive director at Blandford Nature Center and Mixed Greens says that farm subsidies are essentially about “social justice.” That’s right, subsidies are about social justice. They’re about the social injustice of subsidizing a product so that people from poorer nations around the world, who would like to do more than simply engage in subsistence farming, can’t compete in a global marketplace because prices are artificially deflated. So, our subsidies are feeding the rich at the expense of the poor in more ways than one.

Of course, the pat response is that other nations are subsidizing too, so our subsidies are just leveling the playing field. To be sure, the world of agricultural business is a complex one, as many of the commenters on our piece point out. Direct farm subsidies are just one thin slice of the government’s intervention into agriculture. Perhaps they’re the most obvious, but they may also not be the most insidious. As one astute reader wrote to me, “The web of market interference in ag is broad and complex.”

Simplify, man.

Update: The Detroit News ran a version of the original piece here.

Are farmers hooked on pork?

Jordan Ballor and Ray Nothstine look at the current battle over farm subsidies. “By encouraging the production of overabundant commodities, the government is creating a cycle of dependency that undermines entrepreneurial initiative,” they write.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, February 16, 2007

I’m not quite sure what to make of this story from Catholic News Service. Its quotations concerning agricultural subsidies from Fr. Andrew Small, a “policy adviser for the U.S. bishops,” while not all perfectly clear without their context, seem to indicate a shift in direction compared to earlier statements from the USCCB. Small notes, for example, that the current system “incentivizes people to overproduce” and that it “isn’t helping the people it’s supposed to help.”

Does this discussion signal a change from earlier bishops’ statements, such as the one I criticized here?