Saturday, April 26, 2008

Role Reversal

The State Department is generally the one executive agency that consistently favors a greater international role for the United States. Farmers, on the other hand, have historically been more parochial in their concerns (not just U.S. farmers, but farmers in every country, and throughout history). In an op-ed in today's New York Times (via Mark Thoma), Norman Borlaug -- the father of the Green Revolution and Nobel Peace Prize winner -- describes the growing threat to global wheat production from Ug99, a new strain of the famous "stem rust" wheat disease that he helped fight in the 1950s. Borlaug notes that the Bush administration has recently scaled back its support for research to fight Ug99, but what struck me as odd was alignment of the executive agencies on this issue:

The Bush administration was initially quick to grasp Ug99’s threat to American wheat production. In 2005, Mike Johanns, then secretary of agriculture, instructed the federal agriculture research service to take the lead in developing an international strategy to deal with stem rust. In 2006, the Agency for International Development mobilized emergency financing to help African and Asian countries accelerate needed wheat research. But more recently, the administration has begun reversing direction. The State Department is recommending ending American support for the international agricultural research centers that helped start the Green Revolution, including all money for wheat research.
As the recent food price crisis has demonstrated, this is the kind of thing that disproportionately harms people in poor countries (i.e., the majority of the world's population). But it's the Department of Agriculture that took the international lead in fighting stem rust, and the State Department that's recommending scaling back our international role. Huh?