Farm Progress is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

History lost on agriculture critics

George Santayana is reported to have said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Michael Grunwald, a reporter for the Washington Post and frequent contributor to Time, wasn’t around when Santayana wrote those words. (The philosopher died in 1952.) So the statement is probably not on his radar screen.

Grunwald, who has turned criticism of commercial food production into a cottage industry, wrote an article for Time, calling the $147.3 million payment made to Brazil in the WTO case “even more outrageous” than the subsidies it provides American cotton farmers.

The article is a litany of the claims made by OxFam International, the Environmental Working Group and others who know little about U.S. agriculture or the farmers who produce 90 percent of our food and fiber. They certainly don’t understand U.S. farm programs or their history.

In 1920, U.S. cotton farmers had a chance to sell their cotton for the then unheard of price of 93 cents a pound. This was in April at the heart of the post-World War I economic boom that ushered in the roaring 20s.

By that fall, cotton prices had dropped 60 cents per pound due to the economic fallout from European currency problems (sound familiar).

Oscar Johnston, the attorney who helped found the National Cotton Council, said the collapse of prices in 1929 and 1930 “was nothing compared to the suffering” in 1920.

More than 80 years later, with the world economy teetering on the brink of a depression, cotton prices started dropping. But, instead of falling to a third of their previous value, they stopped in the 50-cent range.

The cotton market stabilized because members of Congress had the sense to write programs that prevent producers of the nation’s food, feed, fiber and now fuel from being swept away when the economy goes into a downturn.

Grunwald, the EWG’s Ken Cook and other critics, apparently have no inkling of why farm programs have made it possible for Americans to avoid the “feast-to-famine” cycles that have bedeviled the world throughout history. (On the eve of World War I, some questioned whether we could feed the army because of a shortfall in wheat production.)

Instead, they continue to write about subsidies to rich farmers, overuse of pesticides and inhumane animal confinement facilities before going home to a dinner that would be the envy of much of the world’s population.

Grunwald claims the U.S. is paying off Brazilian farmers so it can continue to “shovel taxpayer dollars to American farmers.” Most in agriculture know the Brazilian case had no merit. But even if it did, the $147 million would be peanuts compared to the cost of a full-blown famine.

email: [email protected]

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.