Suicides Immigration and the Farm Bill

If you've had trouble wrapping your brain around the complicated Farm Bill being debated in Congress right now, this might help. Just think of two things: Suicides in India and Mexican migration to the US.

You've probably heard something of the suicide story. Grizzly, stories of farmers in the rural areas of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh, who lose money on their crops year after year after year until finally in that very traditional, honor, shame society, they take their lives. Usually by eating their pesticides, sometimes falling on their hoe, sometimes worse.

It's an epidemic that has been growing for over a decade and is at least in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands.

Now, there are a lot of causes for poverty in India, and not all of them relate to you and me, but one of them does. For years our country has been pushing India and other developing countries to lower their tariffs on imported goods and lower subsidies for their local farmers, while at the same time we have been increasing the subsidies we pay to our own farmers. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but in 2005, during World Trade Organization negotiations, the US offered to lower its overall subsidies to only $22 billion! That's a lot of money.

Those subsidies are an incentive for our farmers to over produce on a handful of select crops—mainly wheat, corn, rice, and soybeans—and then dump them on the world market at prices even starving farmers in India, Africa and Latin America can't compete with. Our over-production depresses world prices and literally lowers the incomes of farmers all over the world.

Then there's the case of Mexico. We pay big subsidies to our large conglomerate farmers to grow corn at costs far lower than what they should be and then that corn floods into Mexico and other countries at prices well below than what their more efficient small farmers can match.

Hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers have lost their farms. Some moved into the cities, some now work in sweat shops, some sell tee-shirts and chicklets to tourists at beach resorts, and thousands attempt to get into the US to find work. When that happens, as you know, some get in, some are deported, and hundreds die on the border.

Ironically, recently after our economic policies decimated the Mexican corn farming industry, and encouraged consumers to become dependent on cheap subsidized US corn, suddenly corn-based ethanol became the next big thing in the US and the price of tortillas soared beyond the reach of most poor people in Mexico. They were knocked down by our economic policies twice.

This fall the US Farm Bill will once again be debated in the Senate, for the first time in several years. People of faith, led by organizations like Church World Service and Bread for the World, will be urging Senators to find more equitable ways to help our domestic farmers and not punish foreign ones, but the first step is to realize that economic decisions here have consequences that reach far further than provincial political acts. There are a thousand reasons for global poverty, but its time we understand the connections between things like our Farm Bill and the well being of the rest of the planet. We are the biggest economy in the world and our behavior matters. When doling out subsidies to a handful of giant corporate farms for a handful of crops, our elected officials may think that they are just giving away money to buy votes and campaign contributions, but in reality they are also contributing to farmers committing suicide in India and families being split up and destroyed in Mexico. It's trickle down economics at its worst.

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