Leveling the playing field: state support for South American producers

While farmer subsidies have decreased across OECD countries, South American governments have gone from taxing their agricultural sector to providing net levels of support. But the picture varies widely across the region.

Over the past two decades, Latin America has become the largest net exporter of food in the world, beating North America. The crown is unlikely to change hands any time soon: the UN’s Food and Agriculture organization estimates that net food exports from the region will total $60 billion by 2024 – three times their 2000 value. Latin America currently holds a much larger share of the agriculture market (13 percent, up from about 8 percent in the mid-90s) than it does in mining (8 percent) and manufactured goods (3 percent).

This probably owes to a more equal global playing field in general, and healthier agricultural policies across South America in particular. Over a period during which OECD governments have reduced subsidies towards the sector, Latin American countries have gone from taxing their farmers to providing them with material support. A 2016 report by the Inter-American Development Bank states that support to farmers in the region amounted to $27.2 billion during the last year for which data was measured, equivalent to 18 percent of GDP.

Yet, in contrast, within South America the picture remains mixed. Producer Support Estimates – which indicate the percentage of farmer revenue provided by agricultural policies – vary within a 45 percent band across the continent. In the case of Argentina, it is even negative (owing to export duties, which act has a tax on producers); in most of the region’s bigger economies, it remains low. The values displayed correspond to the latest three-year averages available for each country – it does not yet show the full effect of recent policy changes, such as Argentina’s decision to end nearly all agricultural export taxes at the end of 2015.