Farm Subsidies Debated in Global Trade Talks

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman is in Switzerland Tuesday to revive stalled global trade talks deadlocked over demands that wealthy countries limit protections for their own farmers. The Bush administration says it is ready to slash U.S. farm subsidies if others do the same, but many countries are reluctant.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The US trade representative is in Switzerland today trying to revive stalled global trade talks. The talks deadlocked over agriculture and demands that wealthy countries knock down the trade barriers that protect their own farmers. The Bush administration says it's ready to slash US farm subsidies if others do the same. Many countries are wary. Switzerland, where the World Trade Organization is headquartered, is one. Like other countries, Switzerland might benefit economically from freer trade in agriculture, but the Swiss say this debate is about things that matter more to them than money. NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.

(Soundbite of cow bells)

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

Twenty-five mocha-colored cows step calmly into the sunlight and begin to climb. Their postcard pictures come to life with tidy bangs, flapping white ears and bells dangling from their leather collars. Slowly they thread their way through plush meadows cradled between rocky peaks that disappear into the clouds.

(Soundbite of cow bells and mooing)

SCHALCH: This is how the Swiss Alps have looked and sounded as far back as anyone can remember. It's not a particularly efficient way to farm. In fact, it's so inefficient that Swiss farmers need some of the most generous agricultural subsidies in the world just to get by. Seventy percent of their income comes from the government. Every evening the cows and goats on this farm have to be collected, sometimes one at a time...

(Soundbite of banging noises)

Unidentified Child: Hey, hey, hey, hey!

SCHALCH: ...and milked one or two at a time. Farmer Barty Geisler(ph) scrambles from one cow to the next with his milking machine while his children milk the family's goats by hand.

(Soundbite of bells)

Mr. BARTY GEISLER (Farmer): (Through Translator) It's hard work, backbreaking work.

SCHALCH: Geisler's a bear of a man with a long, curly beard. He and his sons have spent much of the week heaving stones into piles to clear more pasture and swinging long wooden scythes to cut grass to store his hay in winter.

Mr. GEISLER: (Through Translator) Then it has to be raked up by hand and carried down a 35-degree slope and loaded up. Yes, you really can't compare this to farming in the flatlands.

SCHALCH: Marketing's a challenge, too. There's no way to get the milk all the way down the mountain, so Geisler's wife, Agnes(ph), makes it into cheese.

(Soundbite of liquid being stirred)

SCHALCH: She's bent over a huge cauldron stirring a pale liquid that will eventually congeal into cheese curds.

Mrs. AGNES GEISLER (Farmer): (Through Translator) Then I'll scoop it out with a towel and put it into molds and press it.

SCHALCH: And even cheese is hard to get to market. Hikers are the Geislers' best customers. They trek up the mountain on sunny days and cheerfully load wheels of cow and goat cheese into their backpacks. But it's not a high-volume business, and it's expensive just to live up here. Equipment, fuel and anything anyone wants to eat other than grass or cheese needs to be loaded onto one tiny gondola...

(Soundbite of door closing, whistles)

SCHALCH: ...then transferred onto another one, then carried on foot up a really steep mountain path for two hours. Barty Geisler admits you can't actually make a living farming up here.

Mr. GEISLER: (Through Translator) Without financial help, you can forget it.

SCHALCH: Geisler figures about 60 percent of his income comes from the government. For others in these mountains, that figure reaches 90 percent. Switzerland also props up farmers' income with high tariffs, which triple the price of some imports. Barty Geisler sits at a rough wooden table beneath a photo of himself and a prize-winning cow, both bedecked with flowers. He says the Swiss do all this for a good reason.

Mr. GEISLER: (Through Translator) They understand that it's important for the mountains to be cultivated. They understand that if we farmers didn't clear away the stones and mow the hay, everything would fall into ruin. The forest would return and it wouldn't be beautiful Switzerland anymore.

Professor HANS PAP(ph) (Agricultural Economics): I would say that the Swiss just like the farmers. They are part of our culture. They are part of our life.

SCHALCH: Hans Pap is a former top official in Switzerland's Agriculture Ministry and a professor of agricultural economics. He says trade is important to Switzerland's economy, but farming is at the core of its identity.

Prof. PAP: The Swiss like their countryside as it is, for recreation, for tourism. They like the villages and their agriculture as it has developed during the centuries.

SCHALCH: These principals are even enshrined in the Swiss constitution. It says the government must support farms to maintain Switzerland's rural scenery and decentralized population and to promote farming that is friendly to the environment and the animals.

(Soundbite of pigs)

SCHALCH: Stefan Binder(ph) says he wouldn't want to farm any other way. He's hip deep in pigs at his small farm in the rolling hills near the German border. The pigs are spotless.

Mr. STEFAN BINDER (Farmer): The pigs have straw beds, which we see here. We put new straw in every day.

SCHALCH: The pigs can wander outside to get exercise. Binder's also installed showers in their pens to cool them off when the weather's too hot.

Mr. BINDER: I think pigs, they do not live very long, so we have to make the short life as much comfortable as possible.

SCHALCH: Binder also complies with Switzerland's stringent environmental regulations. All of the waste his pigs generate has to be kept on the farm, absorbed as fertilizer for his corn, beets and barley, so he's limited to raising 400 pigs at a time. Swiss consumers pay dearly to have farms they can feel good about. Pork chops in Switzerland sell for about $20 per pound. In Germany, just across the border, meat's a lot cheaper. Sometimes Binder watches lines of shoppers crossing the border. He doesn't blame them, actually.

Mr. BINDER: If you ask me, I would like to eat a happy pig, of course, but if I could choose between a pig that cost 10 francs a kilo or 60 francs a kilo, then I have to ask myself how much I'm ready to pay for this happiness.

SCHALCH: Surveys underscore this ambivalence, according to Claudia Wirz, who covers agriculture for the influential Neue Zurcher Zeitung.

Ms. CLAUDIA WIRZ (Neue Zurcher Zeitung): We have about 50 percent of the population who think that agriculture in Switzerland is too expensive.

SCHALCH: But polls indicate something else as well, something politicians can't ignore.

Ms. WIRZ: Nobody in Switzerland, I think, really wants agriculture to vanish.

SCHALCH: So Switzerland's in a bind. The global trade talks now under way could fail unless countries like Switzerland agree to slash their tariffs and subsidies fast. Lead Swiss negotiator Luzius Wasescha says that's asking a lot.

Mr. LOU SIETZVAZASHA (Negotiator): This would mean that our production will disappear.

SCHALCH: He says Switzerland is slowly reducing its subsidies, but he says without tariffs on meat, dairy products and grains, Swiss farmers wouldn't stand a chance.

Mr. SIETZVAZASHA: We will risk an explosion from the farmers. For the time being, they trust us. They know that we do whatever we can.

SCHALCH: The World Trade Organization operates by consensus, so small countries with big worries can have a lot of clout. Switzerland and other countries may decide in the end that a deal that sacrifices their farmers and their lifestyle is worse than no deal at all. Kathleen Schalch, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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