Many countries, especially those in the West, support their farmers with generous agricultural subsidies. In 2011, for example, Canada spent $6.9 billion on them. These programmes, however, create inefficiency and lead to morally questionable outcomes.
Farm subsidies artificially reduce the cost of farming. In other words, farmers produce more in jurisdictions with subsidies than those without, i.e. subsidized farmers produce more than what would otherwise be profitable under purely competitive market conditions.
For instance, consider a developed country without farm subsidies. Farmers would use land that allows them to earn as much, or more, money than they could by renting it to the highest bidder. If this country introduced agricultural subsidies, farmers would purchase or rent additional land, since it would increase their revenue from the additional land above its market price (which, all things equal, was uneconomical before subsidization). Under competitive conditions, farmers would not utilize the additional land, whereas providing subsidies encourages them to do so.
Now, imagine a farmer who plans to purchase land in one of two countries. He must choose between Country A, which has extremely fertile land, and Country B, which has only passable land. If the cost of doing business and renting land were equal in both countries, he would likely choose Country A. However, if Country B offered subsidies that compensate him for utilizing less productive land, then he may opt to operate there, instead. In other words, agricultural subsidies are inefficient, in that they encourage farming on land that could be useful for building shopping malls, restaurants, or movie theatres. Moreover, subsidies create inefficiencies between countries with different agricultural policies.
These subsidies are more pervasive in the developed world than in its developing counterpart. Farmers in poorer countries are unable to compete with farmers in richer countries that offer artificially low factor prices resulting from lavish subsidies. As a result, these subsidies encouraging production in areas that are not especially suitable for agriculture, while discouraging production in areas that are suitable for farming. It is in the interest of developing countries to end agricultural subsidies, as it would allow them to expand their agricultural industries, which currently underperform due to subsidies in rich countries, and would alleviate rural poverty by boosting production and prices. Currently, however, richer countries “dump” their subsidized products in poorer countries, not only deteriorating their ability to generate economic activity, but also creating a dependency trap. From the perspective of richer countries that provide billions in annual subsidies, it is more efficient to stop transferring wealth to their agricultural industry and, instead, purchase foodstuffs from abroad.
Agricultural subsidies additionally affect wealth distribution at the domestic level. Policymakers fund the subsidies using tax revenue, which they transfer to farmers and landowners that tend to be wealthier than most; in 2011, the average income of a farm family was $93,426. That is, they redistribute wealth from the general population to a small group of wealthy individuals and firms. Indeed, contemporary “farming” is much different from its predecessor: most “farmers” are wealthier individuals and many farm operations involve large firms that use factories.
Farm subsidies also have a tendency to remain politically relevant–the special interest group behind farm subsidies is very powerful. It is politically expedient for governments to stay these benefits, as they require little funding per capita, yet, provide massive benefits to a small group. In other words, the cost of fighting these subsidies exceeds to cost of providing them in the first place. Moreover, when subsidies increase, this group begins to sense that they can generate more profit by lobbying the government than by actually producing foodstuffs or agricultural commodities.
Lastly, the farming lobby provides a massive obstacle to potential trade deals. In 2007, for instance, American and European governments’ objected to limiting their agricultural subsidies, which threatened the World Trade Organization’s Doha talks. India and Brazil, the countries proposing that western farm subsidies recede, in turn, refused to open their markets.
Proponents of agricultural subsidies typically defend their position by arguing that they benefit farmers and increase food security. However, in world of institutionalized trade relationships, there is little reason why any country should strive for food autarky at the expense of efficiency. Additionally, the age of rural poverty in rich countries is essentially over: farmers whom subsidies support tend to be quite wealthy. For these reasons, and those mentioned above, all states would be wise to stop subsidizing agriculture.
Michael Sullivan is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute