Should World Farming Be in the US Image?

THE Bush administration has taken an uncompromising position with regard to farm subsidies in the floundering world trade talks known as GATT. While claiming to protect the interests of American farmers, Washington's position would hold European farmers hostage to unwanted and inappropriate systems of American agriculture and encourage the perpetuation of poor farming practices at home. Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter assumes that the United States has developed the best and most efficient system of agriculture in the world. He offers as evidence the high productivity of the American farm and the fact that Americans pay less for their food than any other people on earth.

But, while rural America continues to empty of its inhabitants, the European community still supports 10 times our number of farmers. In often rugged terrain, highly unsuited to American-style megafarming, the small family farm has been a cherished tradition in Europe for centuries. These farms cannot compete in a free marketplace measured only in terms of ``cheap food.'' To protect a valued way of life and the quality of their food supply, European farmers and their governments continue to insist on endorsing farm subsidies to prevent being overrun by cheaper food from overseas.

If the US succeeds in pressuring the European community to either drastically reduce or eliminate farm subsidies, the bankruptcy of huge numbers of small farms would almost certainly be the consequence. Mr. Yeutter's response? Farmers could easily be retrained for other work.

Does Yeutter assume that the tens of thousands of rural residents displaced from America's dying small family farms are living happily ever after in America's idyllic cities? Is not at least some portion of our urban ills related to the depopulation of our rural countryside, and the deterioration of those very land-based values European nations are determined to preserve? Is this connection not part of the total cost we Americans pay for our system of producing food? Is this the ``quality of life'' our secretary of agriculture thinks the rest of the world should copy?

Here in Iowa, many domestic wells and nearly 80 percent of all municipal wells are contaminated with nitrates and herbicides used to produce those cheap exports Yeutter would like to sell overseas. Apparently he does not include the long-term costs of correcting this life-threatening problem in his estimate of how much Americans pay for their food. Nor does he include the cost to the nation of treating with public funds the cancers and other debilitating diseases among migrant laborers exposed daily to deadly farm chemicals. And how do we measure the cost to our children of the loss of topsoil?

No single approach to farming is perfect. Many regions of the world stand as stark reminders of the consequences of farming contrary to the principals of nature. Large-scale mechanized farming has much to offer the world, but such farming, practiced in ecologically sound ways, is not inexpensive. Perhaps if American agricultural exports were allowed to reflect the real costs of a sustainable form of production, the GATT talks would produce internationally acceptable results.

American farmers strapped with higher input costs and a degraded environment are seeking more sustainable forms of farming. Greenbelt agriculture is returning around American cities in spite of USDA policies that have discouraged diversification. State governments like ours in Iowa have become leaders in agricultural and environmental legislation that assists farmers adopt sustainable practices. Land grant colleges are finally returning to their original mandate to help America's small family farmer. These are all actions consistent with the European outlook.

Secretary Yeutter would do both agriculture and international relations a better service if he took a far broader look at the issues surrounding the European position at the GATT talks and perhaps applied some of that wisdom here at home.

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