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Food, farmers, and subsidies

THAT roar of approval you did not hear from Congress or Europe in favor of the Reagan administration's plan to end global farm subsidies by the year 2000 - a sort of ``zero-zero'' option for agriculture - underscores the difficulties the proposal faces. Subsidies do help even out agricultural price and production cycles. But the long-range goal - phasing out direct and indirect subsidies for farmers - still warrants pursuit. Subsidies distort production and marketing patterns. They cost consumers and taxpayers worldwide more than $100 billion yearly.

Moving ahead with the phasing out of subsidies faces enormous hurdles. Action will come months from now, or later down the road, if at all. The administration unveiled its plan this week in talks at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in Geneva. At the recent Venice economic summit, US trade allies would not endorse a flat ban on subsidies.

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That said, the costs of farm subsidies are immense - running $25 billion or more annually in the United States, and $30 billion to $40 billion or more in Europe. Many farmers, in such countries as West Germany and France as well as the US, argue that without support programs they would be forced into bankruptcy. The political strength of the farming community in industrial nations (despite their shrinking numbers as a percentage of the total population) has allowed subsidy-support programs to grow in recent years.

The Reagan administration prudently chose a twofold approach: get an agreement signed by America's main trading allies by 1988; let actual reductions be phased in gradually, over a 10-year cycle.

At this moment, a zero-zero option on subsidies would make little sense, and is politically unacceptable, abroad as well as in the US. Nor are US programs merely domestic in content: Scores of agricultural regulations cover the importation of various commodities - allowing them into the US based on such factors as weight, purity, color ... you name it.

As farm groups note, it would be a mistake to believe that agriculture alone is subject to governmental support, and thus single out only farmers for cuts in federal aid. Just look at industrial policies and government benefits received by thousands of business firms. So a case can be made that taxpayer-supported global subsidies in general should be ended.

Still, the agriculture proposal is a useful first step in the right direction. Whatever happens abroad, Congress will want to take a careful look at what effect future reductions in agricultural subsidies would have on the farm community. At the minimum, nothing must be done that would curtail essential farm production, harm the environment through lessened land-management practices, or, most important, drive farmers prematurely off the farm.

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