Politics of Poverty

Fraying around the edges, eating into the core: Kim Elliott on superbugs, global trade, and agriculture

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Cruz del Carmen Muñoz displays a tomato from her home garden. "I started a garden for the first time, and my tomato plants are still producing. I grew a lot of tomatoes, cucumbers, and chilis. When tomatoes were expensive in the market, we sold to our neighbors. I am delighted with my garden. In the past, i could never produce enough corn. But with the organic fertilizer I was able to produce my best harvest ever. On an area of land that used to produce eight quintals of corn I was able to grow 32. In the past, when the corn was a meter high, pests would attack the plants. It seems like the fertilizer prevented that. I planted in August and harvested in November. I am very happy. "

An interview with Kimberly Elliott of the Center for Global Development (CGD).

My friend and colleague Kimberly Elliott is out with a book this summer, “Global Agriculture and the American Farmer.”  It’s a magisterial review of issues around agriculture trade, farm subsidies, and biofuels.  Someone recently snarked that “magisterial” means “long and boring,” but in this case it’s not; Kim’s work is concise, clear, and readable.

Cover of Elliot’s book.

Oxfam has focused on these issues since before we launched our “Make Trade Fair” campaign.  For Kim – as for Oxfam – the underlying concern is whether trade and agriculture policy can be made to better serve the goal of poverty reduction and food security.  Preventing future climate change and adapting to the climate changes that are now inevitable are additional concerns.

I asked Kim to answer a few questions:

The book is about global agriculture and the American farmer.  But how important are American farmers – and American farm policy – to global agriculture?  What is the signal-to-noise ratio?  Are we spending too much effort on a small part of the overall picture? 

One thing I think we can say for sure is that the problem of rich country farm subsidies is less acute than it was when Oxfam started its Make Trade Fair campaign in the early 2000s. And I think Oxfam, along with other antipoverty advocates can take some of the credit for that. While the European Union still spends many billions of euros to support its farmers every year, it does so in ways that are much less trade-distorting than before.

One reason that I focused on US policy in my book is that it has demonstrated much less commitment to agriculture reform. Yes, US subsidies are down. But that is mainly because of changes in global markets and the fact that, even with recent declines, prices are still up from the lows of the late 1990s. But trade-distorting policies remain in place and some of the large emerging markets seem to be emulating the rich world’s beggar-thy-neighbor bad habits on farm policy. That means the risk of destabilizing global markets again is still there.

Finally, agriculture continues to be one of the most contentious issues at the World Trade Organization and without US reform, I don’t think progress is likely. In the current environment, I remain very concerned that the World Trade Organization (WTO) seems to be stuck on the sidelines.

I was struck by the third topic in your book, on the growing risk of super-bugs and antibiotic resistance. These drugs are a kind of public good that is being lost due to poor stewardship and bad practice, with US farmers and US policy playing a large role.  Are there other “public goods” that US agriculture policy ought to be prioritizing?

An obvious one is climate change mitigation.  This is another area where livestock production has a big role. Methane emissions from cattle and from the massive manure “lagoons” produced by large animal feeding operations are a major contributor to greenhouse gases. I also show in the book that the current generation of food-based biofuels are a diversion, at best, when it comes to finding alternatives to gasoline and diesel. We’d be far better off modestly raising gasoline taxes and continuing with the higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks implemented under President Obama.

In writing the book, I also discovered that many countries, including the US and EU, waive or rebate taxes for on-farm fuel use. That’s a relatively minor contributor to the overall climate change problem, but at a time when there is so much talk about sustainability and climate smart agriculture, it seems particularly egregious. And I suspect that a major reason it survives is simply that no one knows about these subsidies and they stay under the radar during policy debates.

One other important global public good that I didn’t get into in the book is research and development (R&D). Yield growth is slowing for many crops in much of the world and that spells potentially big problems for food security if demand growth accelerates in developing countries as expected. Shifting some resources to ag R&D would help all farmers, not just the large and already rich ones, as well as contributing to food security around the world.

You and I have watched these big policy processes for years. We’ve seen the WTO Doha Round negotiations fail; the efforts to reform the US Farm Bill mostly failed.  We’re watching as anti-microbial resistance is growing.  Are you depressed?  Worried? 

I guess I am more frustrated than depressed but I am worried. As I mentioned, I’m worried that the fraying around the edges of the rules-based trade system is starting to eat into the core. And that will leave the more vulnerable developing countries at the mercy of their more powerful trading partners.

And like a lot of people, I’m scared to death about the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. I’m much more likely now to grab for the antibiotic cream when I get even a minor scratch! And it is just baffling to me that the US government is not doing more to address this problem. We don’t really know, because the data is so bad, but the inappropriate use in human health is probably the bigger part of the problem. But a new Pew study shows that there is already a wide range of alternatives that could replace antimicrobial use in livestock. It seems like low-hanging fruit to get farmers to transition to those alternatives and save the drugs for treatment when it they are really needed.

What’s your next book?

I’m not sure if I’ll write another book.  I don’t think books are a dying species—at least I hope not. But when it comes to policy advocacy, even when based on rigorous research, I’m not sure books are the best way to communicate.

And, at the moment, I’m focused on working with CGD colleagues to try to move the needle on the anti-microbial resistance issue. The US should be doing far more than it is, but this is an issue that simply cannot be solved without global cooperation.

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