A number of people in public life and the news media had some not so nice things to say about cotton producers and the effect of the U.S. cotton program on farmers in West Africa in 2007. But Jimmy Carter?
Carter, who identifies himself as a cotton farmer, recently wrote an “op ed” article for the Washington Post that sharply criticized the farm bill for encouraging excess production while providing “enormous” government payments to the biggest U.S. producers and harming farmers in Mali, Burkina Faso and other African countries.
National Cotton Council leaders responded to Carter’s article, which was just the latest in a steady drumbeat of editorial and electronic media criticism of the cotton program, the primary safety net for America’s producers.
“It is deeply disappointing that former president Jimmy Carter regurgitated the same inflammatory rhetoric that vilified U.S. farmers and that he ignored the data regarding world fiber markets and the West African economy,” said NCC President and CEO Mark Lange.
Carter wrote his missive in support of two amendments, the Farm Ranch, Equity, Stewardship and Health Act, sponsored by Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Frank Lautenberg, R-N.J., and the payment limit amendment, sponsored by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, both of which were subsequently defeated during the Senate farm bill debate.
“Congress can still act decisively this year to right a wrong that is hurting both small American farmers and the poorest people on the planet,” Carter wrote. “A long-overdue debate is taking place on reform of the 1933 farm bill, passed during the Great Depression to alleviate the suffering of America’s family farmers.”
In its current form, he said, “the legislation does not fulfill its original purposes but instead encourages excess production while channeling enormous government payments to the biggest producers.”
The article repeated the oft-cited 10 percent of cotton growers receiving more than 80 percent of total subsidies. “The wealthiest 1 percent of American cotton farmers continues to receive over 25 percent of payouts for cotton, while more than half of America’s cotton farmers receive no subsidies at all.”
Carter said American farmers are not dependent on the global market because they are guaranteed a minimum selling price by the federal government, adding that American producers of cotton received more than $18 billion in subsidies between 1999 and 2005, while market value of the cotton was $23 billion.
Fragile African economies that depend on agricultural exports, especially cotton, are sometimes devastated by these practices, he said, citing a 2002 report that claims sub-Saharan Africa lost $302 million as a direct result of U.S. cotton subsidies, with two-thirds of the loss sustained in eight countries -- Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Chad and Togo.
“I am still a cotton farmer, and I have been in the fields in Mali, where all the work is done by families with small land holdings. Cotton production costs 73 cents per pound in the United States and only 21 cents per pound in West Africa, so American farmers do need protection in the international marketplace,” he noted.
“But Congress has a moral obligation to protect American agriculture with legislation that will serve our national interests, that will feed hungry people and that does not suppress the ability of the poor to work their way out of poverty.”
Lange said cotton leaders have little doubt that Carter is sincere, but noted studies by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and Texas Tech University have all independently found minimal impacts on world prices from the U.S. cotton program.
“U.S. cotton producers are not locked into cotton production by the existence of program payments. In fact, U.S. cotton acreage declined by 29 percent in 2007 and is the lowest it's been since 1989,” said Lange. “It is difficult to find excess in today’s production.”
India and Brazil are dramatically increasing cotton production and exports of raw cotton. China has increased cotton production and its net exports of cotton textile and apparel products.
“West African farmers are losing ground to other countries by their failure to embrace modern technology,” said Lange. “Finally, monopolistic organizations in West Africa cause farmers there to get less than 50 percent of the world price.
“Contrary to Mr. Carter’s opinion, U.S. farm programs are not devastating West African economies.”