Keeping 'Em Down on the Farm

In "The Sound of Music" hills of Austria, many sheep farmers are paid to maintain unproductive farmlands for an odd reason: Tourists expect the Austrian countryside to look quaintly pastoral, otherwise they won't keep coming.

Meanwhile, billions of dirt-poor farmers around the world can't sell their goods because high subsidies to European Union farmers (such as Austria's) cause an overproduction that floods global markets with inexpensive exports. Such subsidies keep many poor nations in a poverty trap.

Tuesday, the EU agricultural commissioner, Franz Fischler, proposed to flip that lopsided deal. Unlike Washington, which just radically increased its farm supports for the nation's 2 million farmers to $180 billion, the EU admits such market distortions cannot persist. Mr. Fischler wants to delink subsidies from the amount farmers actually produce, and direct support payments to rural development.

He's up against a mighty force.

EU leaders have long relied on farm votes. On the other hand, Fischler will be supported by environmentalists, who cite the harmful effects of intensive farming on wildlife and the land.

More urgently, the EU wants to admit 10 new nations in the east, but doesn't have the money to give their poor farmers the same subsidies. The strategic reasons for widening the EU must trump a 40-year-old agricultural policy that's out of date.

The EU also wants to trump the US in global trade talks next spring that hinge on opening up food markets – which means curbing farm subsidies. The US, once the world leader in free trade, has buried that mantle under the excesses of its farm subsidies.

The Fischler plan undercut two reasons for subsidies – a desire for a "living landscape" and healthy rural economies – by boosting rural development. But it can't help the EU, and almost every nation, accept the fact that rising dependence on global trade in all goods means many nations cannot continue to be self-sufficient in food. That may be a scary leap, but it's less so in an interdependent world.

Not every poor nation will benefit from free trade in agricultural goods. But rich nations can help themselves and millions of the world's poor by no longer protecting their farmers from the winds of global trade.

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