Food and Trade: Who Wants to Play By The Rules When You Can Make Them?


I remember being utterly confused by the game “Simon-Says” when I was younger. I don’t know how you can complicate the game, but I did. I have scattered recollections of my teacher explaining to me how the game works and then trying to follow along with other students. But I ended up crying and getting frustrated because I thought “Simon” kept changing the rules. Simon said sit, so I sat; the person playing Simon said stand, so I stood. But, I wasn’t supposed to stand up because Simon didn’t say so.

The United States can sometimes be like my childhood version of Simon. It tells you how to play the game and then subsequently changes the rules so that you lose. It has this habit of entering into these “free trade” agreements, like NAFTA, explaining the rules to other countries: no tariffs, no subsidies, and no protectionist actions to inhibit trade. But, America does all these things. So, to Simon—to the US—why would he want to play by the rules when he can just make them up?

The US forces countries to lower trade restrictions so that American goods can flood their markets. And, even though the agreements state that all participants must adhere to the policies and regulations, America is somehow able to bypass them and continue subsidizing key industries. These industries are able to utilize these subsidies and create a false price point resulting in their advantage on the world market.

That is the way agricultural subsidies work. Taxpayers’ money is collected and then allocated in some form to domestic farmers. This support guarantees a pre-determined income that is never a reflection of their actual performance. In theory, this is a good thing, the government supposedly helping small farmers—the backbone of our society. However, too often these subsidies are fixed and go to major corporations, not to your small town, local farmer.

Take for example the US and Mexico. With the implementation of NAFTA and the subsequent liberalization of trade barriers, Mexican corn producers were directly competing with US corn producers. But, like my childhood version of Simon, the US changed the rules. Yes, Mexico was forced to eliminate any trade barriers and protectionist regulations shielding their farmers from global market competition, but the US was able to continue subsidizing their farmers. By doing this, the US corn price was made lower than the global price (including Mexico’s corn price), resulting in the ironic fact that Mexico—the birthplace of corn—was forced to import a majority of its corn from the United States. Simon doesn’t play fair.

How is it that the US can make and implement free trade agreements but then change the rules in its favor? Ask Congress. And, what most Congressmen will say, along with other major food industries, is that we have a right to help our farmers. Our “local” farmers should be protected from the volatile nature of competitive pricing. They argue, that without the subsidies, farmers would go out of business. But, a vast majority of these subsidies are not going to the picturesque farmer on a beautiful farm; they are going to huge agricultural operations owned by companies making more than enough to compete on the world market. Oh, and did I mention, some of these large subsidies amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, are actually going towards members of Congress too? It seems to me there is a great conflict of interest here.

Let’s slash subsidies. All of them. When the US enters into these trade agreements, it should be required to adhere to that agreement and eliminate all trade barriers. It is not fair for the US to force other nations to stop protecting their domestic farm sectors, yet turn around and continue to do the same at home. US farm subsidies have resulted in small farmers in other countries, like Mexico, losing out by playing by American rules. Mexican corn producers cannot compete with the subsidized price of American corn. Worse, the collapse of the Mexican farm economy has exacerbated the migration problem within Mexico from rural areas to cities, as well as internationally with displaced farmers migrating to the US to find jobs.

The US shouldn’t get to play Simon anymore. It can’t just make the rules and then change them. The US needs to eliminate subsidies, now.

Alexandria McMahon is a junior in International Affairs and Anthropology at Northeastern University. The views expressed are hers alone.