Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Food, Farming, and Foreign Policy

James Skillen


April 27, 1998

Eighteen years ago, when I was living in Iowa, the "farm crisis" consisted of increasing soil loss, insufficient markets for federally subsidized crops, and a growing number of bankruptcies due to skyrocketing interest rates that trapped farmers who had mortgaged their land (and not just their next crop) to buy new equipment and more land.

Today, except for continuing environmental dangers, the trying circumstances of the early '80s are all but forgotten. Federal subsidies, whether as crop-price supports or as payments for not planting all of one's cropland, have been reduced or eliminated. Food and other agriculture-related exports are booming, especially to Asia. Many farmers are planting fence row to fence row. According to Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, his state's exports have quintupled in just the last ten years.

If today a Nebraska or Iowa farmer has little worry about not being able to pay off his loan to the local bank once the crop comes in, he may not, however, be altogether free of bank worries. But the banks now in question are those in economically troubled Pacific-rim countries that import American products. When banks in Japan or Korea or Indonesia go under, or raise interest rates, or quit giving loans to their businesses, Nebraskans will soon feel the consequences in reduced demand for America's agricultural exports.

It's called a shrinking globe.

And for this reason Senator Hagel, in particular, is doing everything he can to muster congressional support for International Monetary Fund (IMF) programs that aim to keep Korea and other troubled countries from economic collapse (Washington Post, 4/21).

Open markets and free trade that make it possible for farmers to enjoy a boom today may open the door to a bust tomorrow. Wise farmers are building up their savings now to get through the lean years that may come. And come they will, because despite IMF and other international efforts on the economic-stability front, international governance for global markets is no stronger today than was U.S. federal governance for American markets at the time of the depression. And, of course, the stability of international trade is dependent on the quality and stability of governments in each country. This is why, at the recent Latin American summit in Chile, President Clinton and other leaders acknowledged that free trade alone will not be sufficient to guarantee economic prosperity in the absence of strong banking, judicial, and governing systems within countries.

Finally, there is the question about the long-term sustainability of the global environment. In the American Midwest, subterranean aquifers are being drained for irrigation. Precious soil is still blowing and washing away. In many other countries environmental degradation is even greater. Many scoff at doomsday warnings about environmental destruction, but soil, water, and air quality all bear directly on the future of plant and animal husbandry, and thus on the future of food for the growing number of people populating this planet.

Nebraska's farmers cannot be expected to save the water and soil in Korea or Indonesia. Nor should we expect the U.S government to save all the economies of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. However, if a Nebraska senator can see the importance for his state of IMF efforts in Asia, then all American citizens and public officials should be able to see that food for the hungry, good farming, and sound foreign policy require long-term public policy integration. Trade or banking reforms cannot be isolated from governance and environmental reforms.

The shrinking world hangs together. And so do all the dimensions of life on this small planet.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”