Foreign aid: a plus for the US farmer's tally

SUPPORTERS for helping third-world countries feed themselves have generally rested their case on moral grounds. Hunger-drawn faces on television and in magazines impinge on the conscience of better-fed citizens. But altruism and morality may no longer be enough to justify taxpayers' money going abroad to help developing countries with their agriculture. Aid for foreign agriculture is under attack, and farmers in both the United States and third world will be the losers if assistance is cut back.

Spurred by the plight of US farmers, dissatisfied voices are suggesting that agricultural assistance for foreign countries undercuts producers back home. The American Soybean Association, for example, which represents a commodity in the top three among US agricultural exports, recently called for an executive order barring foreign assistance for crops that might compete with US exports. At least one-quarter of farm income in the US is linked to overseas sales, and the value of US agricultural exports, which has reached as much as $45 billion a year, has recently been slipping.

Foreign assistance has become a scapegoat for the folding of so many farms and the downturn in agricultural exports in the US. The overvalued dollar, high interest rates, market distortions created by $25 billion worth of subsidies every year, drought, the mounting debt of many third-world countries, and a slowdown of the world economy in the 1980s are the main causes of the decline in US agricultural exports and farm foreclosures.

Cutting back support for agricultural development in the third world is likely to backfire on US farmers. As countries improve their ability to feed themselves and achieve higher standards of living, the market for US agricultural exports grows. For example, wheat consumption worldwide is increasing more than twice as fast as population growth, mainly because consumption of the cereal increases as living standards improve.

Similarly, the demand for meat and dairy products also increases as income levels rise; many developing countries import substantial amounts of beef, pork, chicken, powdered milk, and cheese from industrial countries. Furthermore, they are purchasing growing volumes of grain to feed domestic herds.

International cooperation is essential to boost and stabilize yields. If you were to sit down in a restaurant and confine your order to foods domesticated in the US, you would certainly leave the table hungry. Farmers in this country have always depended heavily on imported crops and varieties, and the continued productivity of farmlands hinges on a constant infusion of fresh genes to improve yields. Crop breeders rely on the free exchange of plants and seeds to model new and better varieties.

Foreign plants have helped US agriculture in numerous ways. About one-quarter of US wheat and rice lands trace their pedigree to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, respectively. These imported wheats and rices have proved a hit with US farmers because they are short and respond especially well to fertilization.

The common bean, relished in America mainly as baked beans, originated in Latin America, and bean breeders in Michigan - this country's largest producer of the crop - rely extensively on foreign materials to upgrade varieties. Scientists at Michigan State University, for example, have tapped collections of bean varieties at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia for a number of useful traits, including disease resistance. And genes for erect plant type, highly suited to Michigan's growing conditions, were obtained from a Costa Rican bean variety.

Demonstrating the benefits of foreign assistance programs to the US could be a double-edged sword. It might play into the hands of those suspecting the motives of US institutions involved in aid programs abroad.

But there is nothing inherently immoral in donors and recipients benefiting from technology transfer. Indeed, with the glint of the deficit-reduction ax shining ever brighter, tangible benefits to US farmers will help maintain, or even increase, foreign aid.

Nigel Smith is professor of geography at the University of Florida and co-author of ``Gene Banks and the World's Food'' (Princeton University Press).

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