The space devoted by The Commercial Appeal to the current international trade controversy surrounding cotton is appropriate given the importance of cotton to the mid-south economy. I appreciate also that the piece provided an opportunity for the National Cotton Council to describe, albeit briefly, a portion of its interaction with the West African cotton industry. It is unfortunate in this case that the headlines alone tend to color the public’s perception from such a series, effectively overshadowing any effort to provide a balanced perspective. The headline, “Smothered by Subsidies,” is grossly misleading thereby doing a great disservice to the series, and in turn, your readers.
Several non-governmental organizations have sustained a campaign against U.S. cotton producers. The press has blindly accepted assertions by these organizations that the U.S. cotton program is causing serious suppression to world prices. It is not a fact, however, and several recent studies by Texas Tech University, the International Monetary Fund and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the U.N. bear that out. These reports have attributed, at most, a 2-4 percent impact on world prices associated with the programs in all cotton subsidizing countries. In addition, these studies report much more substantial impacts from other trade policies conducted by other countries. Balanced reporting would have taken these other reports into account and would have involved detail fact-verifying before printing.
At one point, an article in your series quoted a world price for cotton of 80 cents per kilo, yet indicated rural Africans are receiving less than half that amount from their buyers. The African farmer is 40 cents per kilo behind most fellow cotton producers in the rest of the world. If the elimination of all subsidies by all countries brought a 4 percent price improvement, that would amount to about 3.2 cents per kilo in the world price. Your reporter saw first-hand their most significant problem, but your headline is “Smothered by Subsidies.”
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 in the world are as disadvantaged as those in West Africa, but the price difference your reporter noted between what they receive as compared to cotton farmers in Brazil or Australia has nothing to do with the U.S. cotton program. Cotton farmers in Brazil and Australia sell their cotton today for 50 cents per pound while the African farmer receives 32 cents.
Further, your report failed to place the cotton program in context. Cotton has been a part of U.S. farm policy for more than 60 years. U.S. farm policy encompasses the major row crops including corn, wheat, soybeans, sorghum, rice, peanuts and cotton. Congress has worked to ensure that farm programs are balanced and equitable between resources devoted to nutrition, conservation and production agriculture, as well as between the various crops participating in programs.
The upshot of these programs is that the U.S. citizen uses less of their disposable income for food and clothing than anyone in the world. Our country enjoys the safest, most abundant supply of food and fiber of any country in the world.
The National Cotton Council is working on programs with the goal of improving the lives of rural Africans. If these programs are allowed to mature, if competition is introduced into their monopolistic economic structure and if the Africans begin to embrace technology that is available for their type of farming enterprises, their returns will increase – hopefully significantly.
Agricultural trade worldwide is fraught with distortions. The WTO negotiations are designed to reduce those distortions on a worldwide basis in a comprehensive manner. U.S. cotton producers are prepared to accept changes in U.S. programs as part of a broad-based reform designed to reduce these distortions while increasing world market access for all agricultural products. But they can only support that change in the context of an overall negotiation. The current Doha Round is highly focused on the plight of the least developed countries. I have concerns that singling out one group of countries and one commodity brings a loss of focus on the broader considerations that need to be addressed.
Articles with misleading headlines do little to acquaint the reader with scope of what could be accomplished and where change can make the greatest difference. If, in the future, you are going to take the time and devote the resources to such a series on this or another topic, I encourage you and your reporters to be more factual than sensationalistic with your headlines, so that the readers will get a more accurate sense of the issue, even if the headline is all that they read.
By the way, there are no air-conditioned 16 row pickers as mentioned in your article. One can only imagine the enormity of such a machine. Accuracy and fact-based reporting would seem to best serve the print media everyday in every story.
Mark D. Lange, President and CEO