In many countries–especially those wealthy nations that have embraced globalization and most fully lowered trade barriers to agricultural products–small farmers have found it increasing difficult to compete with food imports.
Farmers in both Europe and the United States have lobbied hard to maintain restrictions on imports of agricultural products. Agricultural products remain among the most protected and highly subsidized goods that are traded. Every day, nearly $1 billion is spent (almost entirely by the world’s wealthy countries) on agricultural export subsidies and domestic price supports. The most immediate effect of these barriers is a decrease in global economic efficiency.
However, farmers in countries that have imposed these measures have argued that what is at stake is not simply a matter of economic efficiency but the preservation of an entire way of life. Within the debate on agricultural subsidies, proponents have made the case that family farms are “multifunctional.” This title of “multi-functionality” essentially means that they are not only producers of agricultural goods, but are also essential to the maintenance of the cultural traditions of their regions.
The term “multifunctional” also suggests that farms have value beyond the food and fiber they produce, which cannot be measured in economic terms alone. The Land Stewardship Project describes this value as follows: “contribution to the vitality of rural communities (through maintenance of family farming, rural employment and cultural heritage), biological diversity, recreation and tourism, soil and water health, bioenergy, landscape, food quality and safety, and animal welfare.”
For certain agricultural communities within the U.S., these abstract debates have become harsh realities. Some rural counties in the northern plains states have lost nearly half their populations due to the closing of family farms and the loss of other jobs relating to agriculture (such as a tractor parts supplier). A significant part of the reason for these losses has been the availability of cheaper imported food.
Of course, farmers in developing countries, who stand to gain the most by reduced subsidies and tariffs, counter that these supposed cultural protections come at the expense of their own economic development. Developing country farmers are eager to break into the rich country markets, and this is often one of their most strenuous demands at trade talks. Generally it is the wealthier countries that spend the most on these agriculture trade-restricting measures.