Brazil and the Anti-Farm Lobby – Strange Bedfellows

May 7, 2013

by Tonya Allen

The old saying is that politics makes for strange bedfellows.

Case in point: Brazil and U.S. farm policy critics.

It’s really no surprise that these two have danced together time and time again, considering Brazil, more than any other country, has the most to gain from dismantling U.S. farm policy and weakening its biggest competitor on the global stage.

But you might be surprised how far this alliance goes in our own country.

One of Brazil’s most prominent partners of recent years, for example, has been agriculture economist Daniel Sumner.  According to a 2004 article in the Washington Post, Sumner, a professor at the University of California at Davis, served as a paid consultant during Brazil’s efforts to use the World Trade Organization (WTO) to attack U.S. cotton policies in the 2000s.

His actions were reviled by farmers across the nation, who understandably couldn’t comprehend why an American economist would want to cozy up with a foreign government intent on gaining a competitive edge over Americans and outsourcing U.S. jobs.

What many didn’t realize is that Sumner – who most recently attacked popular crop insurance policies after last year’s historic drought and suggested eliminating the USDA – has long opposed U.S. farm policies in general.  He’s noted that he “sees little rationale for protecting farmers from market forces.”

It’s an ironic stance for Sumner considering Brazil’s well-documented subsidization and market manipulating policies keep such free market forces from ever materializing.

But the irony is even thicker for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental activist group that teamed with Sumner and Brazil to attack U.S. cotton producers.

According to a March 2005 National Journal article, “Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook … served as a consultant to the Brazilians.” Yes, the same Brazilians who have been skewered by the international community for environmental atrocities.

Hard to believe that environmentalists would team with the very industry criticized for tearing down the rain forests.  But Brazilian farming interests and EWG are actually so close that they share the same K Street lobbying shop.

Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti began lobbying for EWG to great fanfare last year, with The Hill reporting that the firm was focusing on commodity policies, crop insurance, and conservation programs on EWG’s behalf.

The firm also represents Brazil’s biggest farming interest, UNICA, otherwise known as the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association.  UNICA is the predominant force behind the country’s sugar and ethanol industries, and it has paid the lobbying shop $380,000 since the 2008 Farm Bill was passed to influence U.S. policy, according to company disclosures.

Mehlman Vogel Catagnetti had other clients with anti-ethanol agendas during that time as well, including oil interests and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

The UNICA link stretches beyond K Street into the world of spin, too.  PR powerhouse Fleishman-Hillard has represented UNICA for years, and even won awards for their attacks on U.S. ethanol policy and support of Brazil’s sugar industry.

Not surprisingly, the National Confectioners Association (NCA) – the U.S. based lobbying arm for the candy industry, which is bankrolling efforts to dismantle U.S. policy – has paid the same firm more than $1.5 million over the past three years, according to IRS filings.

NCA and Brazilian interests also share lobbyists at the Altrius Group.

Of course, while Brazil and their U.S. allies have been busy tearing down the U.S. farm safety net in the halls of Congress, the Brazilian government has been busy rapidly expanding its own subsidization.

A recent study by an England-based sugar researcher shows more than $2.5 billion a year in sugar subsidies alone are now flowing to Brazilians with the total farm budget in Brazil nearing $70 billion.

U.S. trade experts DTB Associates now predict that Brazil is some $2 billion over its agreed-to WTO subsidy cap.  And that was before Brazil announced a new slew of ethanol subsidies just last week.

Will Brazil face penalties at the same WTO where the alliance between Brazil and U.S. farm opponents was first concocted all those years ago?  Hard to say, but chances are good Brazil’s U.S. bedfellows won’t make a peep against them.