Monday, March 13, 2006

Be very, very afraid

David Richardson is an East Anglian arable farmer who has a regular column in Farmers Weekly. I met him once and he is a nice guy. But he is also an eloquent exponent of the notion that farmers are hard done by and should continue to receive substantial subsidies from a grateful population. One of his regular arguments is that the food security arguments used when the common market was founded are just as valid today, only now the threat comes from terrorists rather than the Soviet Union. Exactly what terrorist incident would disrupt the food supply chain on a massive scale is never quite explained.

So one has to be very worried when Richardson, who is usually whingeing about the failure of Defra to 'back' farmers, praises a speech by an EU commissioner. Even more so when the commissioner in question is Peter Mandelson who has recently been showing his protectionist colours by using anti-dumping legislation to stop European consumers enjoying cheap shoes from China. 'Is Mandelson our mate?' is the heading on Richardson's column who is depicted with the kind of stick that was once used for poking pigs and the kind of cloth cap that only elderly farmers wear.

Well, is Mandy the farmers' new friend? What he did tell the National Farmers' Union annual conference was that the CAP is not obsolete and that agriculture as a sector cannot be treated like all others. Why not? Because 'It is too intimately connected to wider issues such as the environment, food security and the future of the countryside.' The reference to food security was particularly worrying as it can be used as a portmenteau justification for limitless subsidies, whereas one can attempt some valuation of beneficial externalities such as cherished landscapes.

The CAP has rightly been under the cosh for its impact on the Global South in recent years, but Mandy gave it large in the manner of his famous 'I am not a quitter' speech to all those softies with a misplaced concern about poor farmers. 'I am not going to be swayed by lazy political correctness into giving ground in agriculture simply because this will please a vociferous lobby that has misunderstood what is really need to tackle word poverty.' So Oxfam and all the other Global South NGOs can tear up their research right now.

Where he did encourage reformers was his declaration that it didn't make sense to spend over 40% of the Community budget on agriculture. He also recognised the reality that China was becoming the industrial workshop of the world, Brazil its most competitive supplier of bulk commodities and India a great service provider. The future for Europe was in providing top quality, knowledge intensive, value added food among other goods and services. In that he is right and David Richardson with his calls for shoring up self-sufficiency and cutting imports is wrong. The global food economy is here, there is plenty of room for high quality local products (backed up by a system of Geographical Indications), but this is time to cut back agricultural protectionism not to reinforce it. There is still everything to play for in the Doha Round.

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