Commentary: Third World syndrome
On its face, the industry-wide push for reauthorization of the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development program—to the tune of about $234 million—in the next farm bill seems like a no-brainer.
For starters, both programs have been funded for nearly a decade now—MAP was actually launched almost 30 years ago—and that seniority matters greatly in a Congress bent on curbing “new” spending.
More importantly, as a letter from a virtual who’s who of ag, fish and forestry trade groups to the leadership of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry noted, these two export promotion and market development programs housed within USDA represent a “successful partnership between non-profit U.S. agricultural trade associations, farmer cooperatives, non-profit state-regional trade groups, small businesses and USDA to share the costs of international marketing and promotional activities such as consumer promotions, market research, trade shows, and trade servicing.”
In other words, let’s spin this as a small-business investment plan, rather than a funneling of taxpayer dollars to the biggest commodity traders on the planet.
Now, that’s not to say that exports don’t benefit ultimately producers and growers. They certainly help boost the market prices of raw commodities and direct surplus production toward emerging markets—ie, south Asia and Latin America—that otherwise would glut domestic markets. And yes, MAP and FMD are indeed an example of the kind of public-private partnership that creates the growth needed to sustain the larger economy.
But let’s not pretend that pouring money into developing foreign markets for U.S. agricultural production doesn’t raise some warning flags. As the coalition’s letters noted, “Exports are a vital part of the U.S. economic engine, and agricultural exports continue to be its strongest component.”
Indeed. USDA’s projection for the current fiscal year is for ag exports to exceed $130 billion, with each of those billions, according to department studies, accounting for more than 8,400 jobs. I’m no math wizard, but isn’t that only eight and one-half jobs for every million dollars of export value? And how many of those 8,400 jobs are new jobs that wouldn’t exist if not for export sales?
More importantly, wouldn’t $234 million in funding for some other public-private partnership—say, in education, research, energy development—be equally successful in creating jobs?