Public Release: 

Tariffs and farm subsidies deny health and affluence

Cornell University

DENVER -- To fend off starvation and reduce child malnutrition in underdeveloped countries, industrialized nations must tear up their import tariffs, open their markets to agricultural goods and discontinue trade-distorting domestic agricultural subsidies, says a Cornell University food policy expert.

Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the H.E. Babcock Professor of Nutrition and Food Policy at Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y., is presenting his criticism of the trade policies of the world's wealthy nations today (Feb. 17) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Denver. Pinstrup-Andersen, who won the 2001 World Food Prize, will speak on the topic "If the World Is Awash in Food, Why Are Millions Starving?" during the symposium "How the World Works."

While affluent North American and European countries should halt internal agricultural subsidies, Pinstrup-Andersen says, developing countries also have an obligation to invest in their rural infrastructure, by helping farmers obtain better technology, and in their market structure. "The solution to the global hunger problem lies in poverty reduction through additional productivity in developing-country agriculture and not in the sharing of surpluses artificially developed in industrialized countries through subsidies," says Pinstrup-Andersen.

There is enough food in the world to provide everyone with a healthy diet, Pinstrup-Andersen says. Yet in developing nations every sixth person is hungry and every third preschool child is malnourished. At the same time, the nutritionist notes, close to two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, and obesity and related chronic diseases are increasing at rapid rates, not only in the United States and Europe but also in many developing countries, such as China. "Why can we not just share so that nobody would go hungry and fewer would be overweight or obese," asks Pinstrup-Andersen rhetorically. The answer, he says, is that three-fourths of the world's hungry and malnourished people are in rural areas, and "they depend on incomes from agriculture, so they must produce more food and other agricultural commodities to escape poverty and hunger."

And good intentions can go awry: Developed countries that share food in troubled regions through aid programs harm poor rural people in recipient countries because of downward pressures on prices, says Pinstrup-Andersen. "In fact, disposal of U.S. surpluses of food in developing countries is making it extremely difficult for poor people to escape hunger," he says.

High import tariffs imposed by affluent countries also are keeping poor countries poor. In the United States and the European Union (EU), sugar prices are artificially high, says Pinstrup-Andersen, because high trade tariffs keep lower-cost sugar from Colombia, Kenya and the Philippines out of the markets. "The price of sugar here and in the EU would drop by a third if we didn't have such high tariffs on the sugar, and these underdeveloped regions would benefit by being part of trade," he says.

Cotton is another agricultural commodity that could lift underdeveloped regions such as West Africa, China and India from poverty, if only the United States and other developed nations would not maintain high import tariffs, notes Pinstrup-Andersen. "We are making it impossible for developing countries to compete. We are not helping them to develop markets. Instead we are closing the door on these countries, but at the same time we are giving them handouts and keeping them in poverty," he says.

Agricultural surpluses result in large measure from inappropriate agricultural policies in industrialized countries, says Pinstrup-Andersen. "While food aid may be appropriate in certain emergency situations, industrialized countries should emphasize the sharing of knowledge and technology as well as more and better focused development assistance, instead of dumping surplus food on growing countries."


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