Journalists are naturally competitive. In an earlier life, reporters on the afternoon daily that employed me fought to beat reporters on the morning newspaper on stories even though they worked in the same building and the same person signed their paychecks.
Thus it wasn't too surprising the other day when The New York Times published a story about Mexican corn farmers struggling to compete against “heavily subsidized” corn producers in the United States.
The article, “Why Mexico's Small Corn Farmers Go Hungry,” reminded of a Wall Street Journal piece last July that said U.S. cotton farmers were responsible for the near-collapse of the economy in the African country of Mali and the impoverishment of its cotton farmers.
The Times' Tina Rosenberg wrote about a farmer whose family has been growing corn in Puebla, Mexico, for three generations — much like the Mali cotton farmer that the Journal's Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman profiled. Both claimed the Mexican/Mali farmers are being forced to the brink by those bad old farm programs in the United States.
“This is because he, the farmer, like other small farmers in Mexico, competes with American products raised on mega-farms that use satellite imagery to mete out fertilizer,” Rosenberg wrote. “These products are so heavily subsidized by the government that many are exported for less than it costs to grow them. According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, American corn sells in Mexico for 25 percent less than its cost. The prices Mr. Hernández and others receive are so low that they lose money with each acre they plant.”
Rosenberg writes that Mexican farmers are protesting the low prices and asking their government to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and to employ temporary tariffs to bar American corn imports. But the real answer, she says, is to stop subsidies to American farmers.
I don't know why reporters for big-city newspapers think you can help farmers in foreign countries by destroying U.S. agriculture. But they continue to harp on that premise in article after article. Mexico's farmers are struggling against economic reality — they cannot compete against mechanized agriculture in the United States or in their own country no matter how much they might wish. Eliminating U.S. subsidies won't make a dime's worth of difference except to put more U.S. farmers out.
Years ago, former Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, who died last month, said in an interview that U.S. PL 480 grain exports had helped fuel South Korea's 1960s economic miracle by freeing farmers to move into the cities for work in its factories. Unfortunately, Mexico has shown little sign of being capable of spawning a similar economic boom. Destroying America's agricultural infrastructure with drastic cuts in farm programs will do little to change that outlook.
Interestingly, Rosenberg claims that the Mexican government subsidizes producers at much smaller levels — about $30 per acre — than in the United States. Without any counter-cyclical or loan deficiency payments this year, U.S. corn farmers' direct payments will average about $33 per acre this year. That $3 must loom large in the eyes of big city journalists.