The Tyranny of King Cotton

Americans like to think that if poor countries simply open up their markets, greater prosperity will follow. Unfortunately, where agriculture is concerned, this is mere rhetoric. The United States pays only lip service to free market principles, favoring Washington lobbyists and campaign contributors who demand just the opposite. Indeed, it is America’s own agricultural subsidies that helped kill, at least for now, the so-called Doha Development Round of trade negotiations that were supposed to give poor countries new opportunities to enhance their growth.

Subsidies hurt developing country farmers because they lead to higher output – and lower global prices. The Bush administration – supposedly committed to free markets around the world – has actually almost doubled the level of agricultural subsidies in the US.

Cotton illustrates the problem. Without subsidies, it would not pay for Americans to produce much cotton; with them, the US is the world’s largest cotton exporter. Some 25,000 rich American cotton farmers divide $3 to $4 billion in subsidies among themselves – with most of the money going to a small fraction of the recipients. The increased supply depresses cotton prices, hurting some 10 million farmers in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

Seldom have so few done so much damage to so many. That damage is all the greater when we consider how America’s trade subsidies contributed to the demise of the Doha Round.