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U.S. cotton growers are correct in saying they are not alone in the subsidy sweepstakes. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, rich nations spend more than $280 billion a year on agricultural "producer support." The U.S. is a piker compared with the European Union, which, when noncash payments and other aid are added in, spends more than three times as much coddling its farmers. World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern estimates that a European cow receives $2.50 a day in subsidies, while 75% of Africans live on less than $2 a day.
European subsidies produce other weird anomalies. Europe is now the second largest sugar exporter in the world, from being a net importer 30 years ago. European sugar is made from sugar beets grown in such unlikely places as Finland, better known as a mobile-phone producer. That hurts poor countries much better suited to producing sugar, such as Haiti, Mozambique and Thailand.
But cotton has become a symbol of the inequities of the current system. Mamadou Goïta, a Malian activist, calls cotton "a kind of school for us. It allows us to analyze the way things are going. If we see progress on cotton, we're hopeful that the developing world can convince the West that it needs to change the whole system. So far, we have seen not much."
Mayor Sissoko sees things more simply. Sitting with his bare feet brushing the dusty floor beside a battered pair of white flip-flops, he shakes his head at a description of an air-conditioned tractor common in the U.S. and Europe. "The farmers there don't sweat," he says. "We are sweating here."