Agriculture Subsidies and African Development

Agricultural subsidies criticized in the Washington Post… but not very well

The Washington Post is running a series of articles that expose some of the true costs of agricultural price supports in the United States. Agricultural subsidies are indeed very bad. These subsidies hurt developing nations by artificially depressing global agricultural commodity prices for the crops that developing nations are desperately trying to export. Proponents who claim that such price supports help smooth price fluctuations ignore unintended consequences, and political rhetoric about “saving the family farm” is empty… as are most of the family farms.

Although the Washington Post’s first two reports are well researched, their data is often misleading, incomplete or anecdotal. An example comes from today’s article about the failure of our current system of price supports, also known as Loan Deficiency Payments (LDPs):

One who played it right last year was Michael T. Sullivan, who produces a million bushels of corn annually with his three sons in Franklin, Minn. He thrived even during the depressed post-Katrina market.

Well before the storm, Sullivan said, the family had arranged to sell three-quarters of its crop to a local grain elevator for about $2 a bushel. The practice, called “forward contracting,” is increasingly common and helps insulate farmers from the market’s routine ups and downs.

On top of their contracted price, the Sullivans got the subsidy: $292,054 for that same corn, according to payment records.

Sullivan considers the LDP a godsend, given the uncertainties of farming. “Without it, Main Street Minnesota would have no money to keep the economy rolling,” he said.

Great, lots of numbers in there. A million bushels. $2 per bushel. And the hardest hitting of all: $292,054 in subsidies. Wow, that’s a lot of subsidies American taxpayers are shelling out.

Problem #1: The numbers cited are production and income based. How much did the family actually net in 2005? $292,054 sure seems like a lot of money in government subsidies, but relative to what? It looks like the Sullivans would have earned about $2 million had they 1 million acres at the market price of $2 per bushel.

Readers would be more sympathetic to the Sullivans if the inputs to produce those 1 million bushels cost them $2.25 million, netting them only $42,054 in income, and only being cash positive because of those government price supports. But what if their costs were only $200,000? Then the Sullivans would millionaires, netting $2.09 million in 2005.

Problem #2: How does the Sullivan family’s subsidy compare to the average subsidy for a corn farmer in Minnesota? How about compared to the U.S.? Is this the average corn production for a farm in Minnesota? A million bushels sounds like a lot to me. But is it? I mean, I probably only eat 200 or 300 bushels a year. (Statastico really likes corn.) Of course this doesn’t matter, because of problem #1: we don’t know anything about their income.

Cash for CornNext, the Washington Post produced a colorful map that makes Iowa look like price support central for corn. Sure, most counties receive more $10 million is price supports for corn. But how much corn does Iowa produce? Well if you’ve seen Field of Dreams or Children of the Corn, you won’t be surprised that Iowa produces 18.8% of all U.S. corn. So the map is colorful, but it tells a deceptively simple story.

Ratio of Government Support to the Value of Corn Produced

If you want harder hitting numbers, head to Iowa State University. Chad E. Hart reports that according to USDA projections, almost half of the market value of Iowa’s 2005 corn crop was made up of government payments. Now we can start to understand why those nations struggling to boost agricultural export walked out of WTO trade talks.

I’ll leave you with some data based in part on what the Washington Post Business section reported on Friday. If you take a look at how much the following countries pay in government support to farmers in 2005, you’ll see that every European paid $293.20 in agriculture support. Americans paid al total of $43 billion, or $145.40 per person. In contrast, the per capita GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa was only $575 in 2002. Statastico does not advocate transferring those agricultural subsidies to development. These subsidies should, however, be reduced to zero over time. Give Africa and other poor farmers around the world a chance to export, an incentive to develop, and above all, a level playing field.


Domestic Government Support to Agriculture (per capita) vs. African GDP (per capita)