In India, one of the most-talked-about TV programs is the reality show Let’s Design.
Aspiring designers create fashionable outfits using cotton, and this year India’s leading fashion house will showcase the winner’s clothing in its store; the winner will also be profiled in the fashion magazine Verve and win a trip to Paris to meet international designers.
And the US taxpayer helps foot the bill.
The show, now in its third season, is the creation of the Cotton Council International, a trade association representing the US cotton industry. The council received US$20.3 million in matching funds last year under a US Agriculture Department program to promote and advertise products abroad.
The money given out under the Market Access Program is used by agricultural trade associations like the cotton council to pay for advertising, consumer promotions, market research, technical assistance and travel.
“This program plays a role in keeping the demand for cotton strong,” said Allen Terhaar, executive director of the council.
Over the past decade, the program has provided nearly US$2 billion in taxpayer money to agriculture trade associations and farmer cooperatives. The promotions are as varied as a manual for pet owners in Japan and a class at a Mexican culinary school to teach aspiring chefs how to cook rice for Mexican consumers. Money also went to large farmer-owned cooperatives like Sunkist, Welch’s and Blue Diamond, which grows and sells almonds. Combined, the three companies had more than US$2 billion in sales in 2009.
However, as the country wrestles with a still-shaky economy and a rising deficit, the program faces new calls for its demise. It has long been a target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, including liberal groups like the US Public Interest Research Group and the conservative National Taxpayers Union.
The Republican Study Committee, a conservative bloc of House of Representatives lawmakers, also identified the program as one of 100 that should be eliminated to help reduce the deficit.
Even US President Barack Obama’s administration, which generally supports the program, wants to reduce it by 20 percent, saying it “overlaps with other Department of Agriculture trade -promotion programs, and its economic impact is unclear.”
Supporters say the program has helped US farmers and growers expand or create markets for their products around the world.
“We think it’s well justified,” said Jay Howell, a lobbyist who coordinates the Coalition to Promote US Agricultural Exports, the industry’s effort to keep the program financed. “It has helped lots of people around the country in small towns and rural communities.”
Howell and other supporters point to a study last year by the Agriculture Department showing that for every dollar that government and industry spend on promotion, agricultural exports increase by US$35.
Supporters say the program has been changed from earlier incarnations that allowed billion-dollar companies like McDonald’s, Tyson Foods and Seagram to get money to advertise abroad. Now the money can go only to a trade association or a nonprofit cooperative, rather than directly to big companies.
“The issues that most critics have with the program relates to what happened in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and those issues have largely been resolved,” said Michael Wootton, senior vice president for corporate relations at Sunkist.