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Column: Where’s that 18 cents for African cotton producers?

By now, most readers of the nation’s major newspapers know that U.S. cotton farmers are on a mission to keep farmers in the African countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali in poverty.

Writers for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have said U.S. growers receive gazillions of dollars in subsidies, which they use to make sure that farmers in those West African countries receive little to nothing for their cotton.

Even the National Cotton Council’s hometown newspaper, the Memphis, Tenn., Commercial Appeal, sent a reporter to Benin and Burkina Faso to produce a two-part special report that was entitled “Subsidies and the Cotton Industry.”

The reporter interviewed NCC President Mark Lange about Council efforts to help African farmers improve their production and marketing systems, but ignored his protests that the series’ focus on U.S. subsidies was way off base. (The Commercial Appeal ran the Council’s written response on Dec. 25.)

Having been on foreign assignments, I can understand how writers might have trouble getting their arms around a complicated issue. But I have rarely seen so many obviously intelligent people totally miss the point of a story.

Lange alluded to that in his response to the Commercial Appeal series, which appeared in its Dec. 4 and Dec. 11 editions. (Lange’s letter can be found on the NCC Web site:

“In your article was a kernel of the story. African cotton farmers are being smothered by the institutions left over from French colonialism, not U.S. subsidies. Perhaps no other cotton farmers are as disadvantaged, but the price difference your reporter noted between what they receive compared to cotton farmers in Brazil or Australia has nothing to do with the U.S. cotton program.”

Lange cited a campaign mounted by non-governmental organizations, saying the press has blindly accepted assertions by these organizations that the U.S. cotton program is suppressing world prices. “Studies by Texas Tech University, the International Monetary Fund and the Food and Agricultural Organization attribute, at most, a 2 to 4 percent impact on world prices from all cotton subsidies.”

The most glaring omission in the Commercial Appeal series, however, is this: Why do cotton farmers in Brazil and Australia sell their cotton for 50 cents per pound while the African farmer receives 32 cents? What happens to the other 18 cents per pound?

It’s siphoned off by officials who either market the cotton or must sign off on documents required to move the crop out of the country. Another recent New York Times article noted that it takes 116 days and 38 government signatures to get a load of bananas from the Central African Republic to a ship bound for Europe. The same may be true for cotton.

If these articles were produced in a vacuum, cotton farmers could ignore them. But the direction of the Doha Round after Hong Kong shows growers have no choice but to respond to the misinformation.


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