Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The EU, Britain and agriculture

Defra has published the 'balance of competences' report on the relationship between the EU and Britain in the area of agriculture. At first glance there is a lot of 'x stakeholder says this' and 'y' stakeholder says that, but it will certainly repay further study. The full report can be downloaded here: Balance of competences

The executive summary states: 'The debate on EU competence for agriculture as set out in the evidence submitted was strongly supportive of EU competence in relation to the Single Market for agricultural goods and to the EU’s role in negotiating global trade deals for agricultural goods. In relation to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), there was a recognition that it had changed significantly from its post-war origins, particularly over the past 30 years. The most damaging and trade-distorting elements had been removed and the UK had played a significant role in driving reform.' In short, things have been worse, they have got somewhat better, we deserve a pat at the back for that and anyway there is no alternative.

The summary continues, 'However, respondents put forward evidence that, notwithstanding the reforms, the CAP’s objectives remained unclear and that the criteria for allocation of funding were irrational and disconnected from what the policy should be aiming to achieve. The majority of respondents argued that the CAP remains misdirected, cumbersome, costly and bureaucratic. Environmental organisations advanced detailed evidence about how historically, market intervention and direct payments had led to negative impacts on biodiversity and the farmed environment. The advent of agri-environment schemes had been beneficial across Europe and provided a regime for conservation that might not otherwise exist.' In short, this is a badly designed and implemented policy.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

New farm minister owns wellies

Liz Truss is the second woman MP from South-West Norfolk to hold the post of farm minister. Her predecessor Gillian Shephard held the portfolio from 1993 to 1994. There has been a long line of agriculture ministers from East Anglia.

Farm leaders wanted to keep Owen Paterson in post, but a lack of wellies during the floods undermined his reputation. His tough line on the badger cull earned plaudits from farmers, but leaving aside opposition from wildlife campaigners and many scientists, the cull failed on its own terms, targets not being met. Paterson then rather unfortunately complained that the badgers had moved the goalposts.

Some commentators, such as the Spectator think that he was targeted by pressure groups. This view has been pursued by Paterson who argues that he was the victim of a powerful self-serving environmental lobby he termed the 'green blob': Green blob . The Economist suggested that he should never have been appointed in the fisrt place.

As far as Farmers Weekly is concerned, Truss does have one of the main qualifications for the post, her own pair of willies, white to judge from the accompanying photograph, thus appearing stylish while avoiding the green colour favoured by urbanites in the countryside. She also takes a hard line on badgers.

The real difficulty for any Defra minister, apart from the fact that most agriculture policy is decided in Brussels, is Defra itself. It is a real mish mash of a department, uncertain whether its main role is to reform the CAP, boost the rural economy (of which agriculture is an important but only one part) or protect the environment. No wonder it has already finished off two ministers, but Ms Truss may be made of sterner stuff.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Farmers and Scottish independence

Some farmers are passionate about Scottish independence out of personal conviction, but many are cool about the idea. They are uncertain whether it will bring the claimed benefits, particularly given the importance of English markets.

The Scottish National Party argues that Westminster has done a poor job of representing Scotland's farming interests in Brussels. As a result, they argue, Scotland has missed out on billion of pounds in EU subsidies. However, others argue that lower levels of per acre subsidy reflect the low farming value of much of the land in western Scotland.

Farmers account for just 65,000 people out of a total Scottish electorate of four million, but both sides in the referendum debate see them as opinion leaders in rural communities and exerting a influence in the key food and drink industry.

Meanwhile, both sides in the referendum debate are rushing to support EU 'protected geographical status' for Ayrshire early new potatoes. This status has already been secured for Arbroath smokies, Scottish salmon and Stornoway black pudding.

There is a broad income range in Scottish farms with the gap between the richest and the poorest farms amounting to £102,000. The bottom 25 per cent of farms saw a loss of £14,000 in 2013 while the top quartile averaged a farm business income (effectively net profit) of £88,000.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Green peas lead to row

New CAP rules require that large arable farmers ensure that five per cent of their land is set aside as an ecological focus area (EFA). The Government has caused controversy by deciding that one of the five options available to farmers to meet the crops will be planting nitrogen fixing crops such as field beans and peas.

Environmental groups argued that this would bring no wildlife benefits, while the RSPB branded the policy 'a wasted opportunity for the environment'. However, Defra minister Owen Paterson defended it in terms of the imperative of food security. For the NFU Meurig Raymond said that it represented 'a pragmatic solution to a very difficult situation.' In other words, smart lobbying by the NFU.

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

The oddities of the wine market

Jens Beckert, Jorg Rossel and Patrick Schenk at Cologne's Max Planck Institute have been looking at variations in the price of wine. Or more specifically, as the title of their paper states 'Wine as a Cultural Product: Symbolic Capital and Price Formation in the Wine Field'. For their study they analysed data from 110 wineries and 1,071 wines (it's not clear if they sampled any of them) as well as data on wine consumers in four German cities.

There are some real oddities in the wine market. Even expensive wines don't cost more than €10 a bottle to produce but, although chemically the same, a bottle of wine can cost 1.99 euros or 300 euros. 'These price differentials are justified by alleged quality differences between the wines. However ... it turns out that the price differences are largely unrelated to different production costs and to the sensual experience wine connoisseurs report when tasting the wine in a bland tasting ... even experts are not able to differentiate between wines based on objective characteristics and cannot rank wines according to their price'. Moreover, each time a new vintage comes along, the taste changes.

There are some generalisations one can make about price. Wines made of high status grape varieties (Riesling, Pinot) are usually more expensive. Dry wine is more expensive than sweet and semi-dry wine. Red wine is more expensive than white and rosé. Older wine is usually more expensive than that of a younger age.

Wine producers can develop symbolic capital that can be turned into profit. Wine producers that produce wines that are 'difficult' to drink because the consumer must first learn to appreciate them and 'work' on developing taste can accumulate such capital. This sounds like a formula for the consumer to be conned and a passport for pretentiousness - which does bring to mind an advert currently shown on British television in which a wine buff is mocked for such pretension.

It's an interesting paper, but there is relatively little about supply and demand which is always a key factor in any market, even one as unusual as that for wine.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cows to get climate change fix

If it was April Fools Day one would think this was a joke, but a White House climate change initiative is searching for a 'cow of the future' whose greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by anti-methane pills, burp scanners and gas backpacks.

Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas with a global warming effect that is twenty times greater than carbon dioxide and cows emit a lot of it. A typical cow emits 250-300 litres of methane a day. The 88 million cattle in the US produce more of it than landfill sites, natural gas leaks or fracking. However, contrary to a common misconception, 97 per cent of the methane gas is released by the front end through burps, not through emissions from the back end.

Supplements such as basil can cut methane production in cows. In Argentina, scientists have created backpacks that collect gas via tubes plugged into cows' stomachs. That sounds as if it would raise animal welfare issues to me.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Climate change report emphasises food supply effects

The latest UN report on climate change emphasises food supply effects: Climate change.

The report argues that climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields both regionally and on a global basis. The effects of climate change on two other important food crops, rice and soya beans, have been smaller in the most important producing countries. There may be some positive effects on crops in cooler climates in future. However, the overall outlook for wheat, rice and maize production in tropical and temperate regions is expected to be more negative than positive.

The last assessment by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 was more sanguine about how climate change was impacting on food production. Unfortunately, the suggestion that the CAP might incorporate a climate change pillar was rapidly dropped in the last set of reform negotiations.

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