Presidential Candidates on Agriculture, Trade, and Development

Unedited version of an article in CAGJ’s November Newsletter, compiled by Ashley Fent. Please note that CAGJ does not endorse any presidential candidate. Speaking as an individual, it is my opinion that neither of the two dominant parties plans a progressive overhaul of the system-rather, both McCain and Obama have interests that often inform their ideologies. In general, both of them desire greater global economic integration and moderate policy changes. However, both have also voiced a commitment to small farmers in the U. S. While they agree on some issues, differences abound in their records and future plans for agriculture. Read on for more information on the debates between Obama and McCain about trade issues, agriculture, and development.

Farm Bill
Sen. Barack Obama voted for the 2008 Farm Bill, stressing its inclusion of measures addressing hunger and conservation programs. Sen. John McCain opposed the bill.

Support for Small Farmers
-Barack Obama has expressed support for small family farms, and has developed a program to encourage younger generations to enter farming. This includes working with farm extension services and public universities to recruit interested young people, and providing tax breaks to farmers who are just starting out.
-John McCain supports reducing the estate tax rate to 15 percent and permitting a $10 million exemption to enable farmers and ranchers to pass along their heritage. McCain also believes in limiting government regulations “that severely alter or limit the ability of the family farm to produce efficiently”-his choice of language has led some commentators to surmise that this statement is a veiled commitment not to intervene in exploitative large-scale operations, particularly animal feedlots, that enjoy extremely lax regulations.

Disaster Relief
McCain has expressed a desire to create a safety net for farmers facing natural disasters as well as “inadvertent government policies that adversely affect markets and the farmer’s ability to produce.” McCain’s website mentions a commitment to help farmers suffering from disasters, but is unclear on exactly how relief would be managed and disasters averted. Barack Obama favors a permanent disaster assistance program that would not require Congressional delays in providing aid.

-John McCain adamantly opposes farm subsidies, stating that they distort the free market and artificially raise prices for consumers.
-Barack Obama calls for a $250,000 cap on subsidy payments. Obama also wants to close loopholes that allow mega-farms to get around the limits by subdividing their operations into multiple paper corporations.

Rural Development
-John McCain wants to devise a comprehensive development strategy to increase economic opportunities in rural areas through lower taxes, strong markets, and high-tech connectivity.
-Barack Obama hopes to promote rural economic development through small businesses and “value-added” agriculture.

Environment and Energy
-Barack Obama has expressed support for those transitioning to organics, and promotes a cost-sharing program that would ease the certification process. Obama argues that incentives should be provided for farmers and ranchers to plant trees, restore grasslands, and use “green” farming practices. Obama also wants to regulate the pollution of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) using strict air and water quality standards.
-John McCain supports conservation programs and integration of environmental protections into farm management. He seeks to achieve this through existing stewardship bodies, the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetland Reserve Program, but his website does not include proposals to strengthen environmental protections in agriculture. McCain promotes a “Green Revolution” for 21st Century America, and has vowed to direct the USDA to conduct comprehensive research into stress- and drought-resistant, high-yielding crops-to conserve resources and combat global warming.
-McCain opposes federal policies that divert greater than twenty-five percent of maize toward bio-fuels. He has stated that subsidization of ethanol production will exacerbate the global food crisis. However, McCain has also voiced his faith in the free market and consumer choices to regulate ethanol production, and believes that some alcohol-based fuels may serve as viable alternatives to petroleum-based energy.
-Obama supports biofuels and ethanol production. He has also professed an openness to the variety of bio-fuels currently being researched and produced. The League of Conservation Voters gave McCain a score of zero for his environmental voting record, while Obama received a 67 out of 100. Similarly, the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund endorse Obama for president. The latter has reprimanded McCain for selecting the notoriously anti-environmental Sarah Palin as his running mate.
-John McCain has stated that agriculture offers the potential to reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil, thereby “reduc[ing] the flow of money that now enriches some of our worst enemies.” However, industrial agriculture relies heavily on petroleum and its byproducts; McCain also overlooks the fact that Canada provides 17 percent of U. S. oil imports, and 18 percent of our natural gas imports. Canadians may be surprised to realize that they are among “our worst enemies.”

-Barack Obama has challenged the dominance of agribusiness over the nation’s food supply, particularly the meat industry in which the four biggest players control upwards of 60 percent of pork, chicken, and beef production.
-John McCain has expressed contempt for corporate concessions, but critics have argued that his “Prosperity for Rural America” proposal contains many goodies for agribusiness. McCain also intends to lower the corporate tax rate to 25 percent to “help our nation compete more aggressively against the likes of China, South Korea, Singapore and Ireland by bringing taxes to a competitive level that encourages entrepreneurs to reinvest their earnings in American workers.”

John McCain highlights the need for a temporary worker program. Obama has pledged to have comprehensive immigration reform done in his first year of office, particularly the Ag Jobs section of immigration reform.

-Having stated that “globalization is an opportunity for American farmers,” John McCain is an unequivocal supporter of free trade agreements, including NAFTA, CAFTA, and all those currently pending. He has stated that NAFTA “has had an unambiguously positive impact on the United States,” and he supported Fast Track. He believes that the U. S. should “continue to engage in multilateral, regional and bilateral efforts to reduce barriers to trade, level the global playing field and vigorously defend the rights of American agriculture within global trading rules.” McCain is in general an advocate of free market principles, and has prescribed market-based solutions to agricultural issues in the U. S. as well as abroad.
-Barack Obama supports a renegotiation of NAFTA, and he opposed CAFTA. He voted yes for a free trade agreement with Oman, and he voted against FTAs with South Korea and Panama. Obama has said that he wants to ensure that all forthcoming trade agreements contain strong and enforceable labor and environmental standards. However, he is committed to breaking down barriers to American agricultural competitiveness and broadening export promotion programs. Obama has criticized NAFTA for its massive displacement of farmers in Mexico; yet both he and McCain are largely uncritical of the negative global consequences of American food exports on agricultural systems in the Global South.

On Africa
-As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Barack Obama is attentive to various issues occurring in Africa. Obama and Biden plan to raise the annual investment in foreign assistance from $25 billion to $50 billion by the end of his first term. They support and are willing to fund debt cancellation for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries-although some critics view this classification as a modified form of structural adjustment which relieves debt in exchange for certain commitments from HIPCs. Obama and Biden seek to reform the IMF and World Bank, to establish an Add Value to Agriculture Initiative, and to strengthen the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which increases duty-free access to U. S. markets for select African countries, and orients African production, largely of clothing, outward. One of Obama’s objectives is “to accelerate Africa’s integration into the global economy.”
-John McCain believes that the U. S. should help to increase agricultural productivity in Africa, namely by being “at the forefront of an African Green Revolution.” He has also expressed an interest in reforming aid programs, and he has suggested that loosening trade restrictions would provide more opportunities for poor farmers.

-Both McCain and Obama have situated development in a context of national security. Obama has stated, “And since extremely poor societies and weak states provide optimal breeding grounds for disease, terrorism, and conflict, the United States has a direct national security interest in dramatically reducing global poverty and joining with our allies in sharing more of our riches to help those most in need;” while John McCain has argued that we cannot rely solely on military power to establish security around the world: “Today too many around the world are excluded from the benefits of globalization. Disconnected from the prosperity that has lifted millions out of poverty, too many societies are plagued by violence, disease, and scarcity.”

Neither candidate has ventured to assert that (asymmetrical) integration into the global economy is a problem rather than a solution to hunger and poverty.
Sources include:

And for a different perspective see these articles on Cynthia McKinney’s (Green Party) stances on agriculture, energy, and immigration:

Posted in Trade Justice Blog Posts.

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