Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ag Committee To Give It Large

The European Parliament's Agriculture Committee is preparing to flex its muscles with the new powers given to it in the Lisbon Trety, which will give the committee co-decision in many areas. MEPs on the committee have served notice on the Commission that they would battle to get their full powers under the new Treaty, fighting issue in the European Court of Justice if necessary.

The Committee also decided to have a turf fight with the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee to get the lead on related dossiers.

UK MEP Neil Parish, who chairs the Agriculture Committee, said that after the Parliament elections next year, he expected there to be stronger demand for membership of the Committee because of its new powers. The key question is: will these new members represent rural constituencies, or have links to the farming and food industries, like many existing members. Or will they be interested in pushing forward the reform debate forward?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Colbert lives!

France has launched a political campaign to restore protectionism to the CAP. French farm minister Michel Barnier has called on Europe to establish a food security plan and to resist further cuts in the EU agriculture budget. The EU should resist WTO pressure to cut farm subsidies. In contrast, Gordon Brown has called for a world trade deal that cuts subsidies to richer countries.

One might think that tighter supply and demand, producing higher food prices would mean that farmers would need fewer subsidies to carry out the commercial aspect of their work as they would be better placed to obtain a return from the market. Admittedly, the buying power of supermarkets that allows them to be price makers and often makes farmers price takers is an issue, especially in the UK, but what that requires is a more effective application of competition policy. Input costs are also rising, but smarter farmers are working out what they can do to use fertilisers more sparingly and more intelligently.

As the Financial Times commented last week, 'The bias towards home production in richer countries betrays ... a historic affection for farming that is often bound up with emotional attachments to culture, cuisine and landscape.' Interventionist measures that boost farmers' incomes may create shortages in global markets, accentuating the problems of those who have to depend on imports: what has been called a 'starve your neighbour' policy.

France says that the EU should increase aid to farmers in developing countries, but that often does not really help the farmers themselves and is really a political fig leaf for continuing the European subsidies game. Just as it seemed as if the skids were under subsidies, a new set of justifications has appeared.

Stefan speaks out

Professor Stefan Tangermann, Head of the OECD Department for Trade and Agriculture

Before he joined OECD, I would run into agricultural economist Stefan Tangermann from time to time at conferences. I was always impressed by his contributions so it is interesting to read his interview with Agra Focus, one of the latest in an excellent series. In a long interview, he had many interesting points to make and the publication itself is essential reading for those with a serious interest in agriculture and food policy. Below a few of his key themes are picked out.

Helping remote regions

This is a big item with the French presidency on the horizon. The French want to retain 'coupled' payments to areas like the Massif Central. Tangermann points out that coupling makes it harder for people to quit production if they want to. If one wants to maintain agricultural activity, a more efficient way of doing that would be to pay people to keep the land 'open' which means not allowing anything to grow above a given height. If this led to the disappearance of cows (or sheep in the UK case) tourists should be prepared to pay for them - it already happens in Austria, Tangermann points out.


Payments need to be targeted, argues Tangermann (and the OECD). Payments need to be targeted towards specific objectives that have been well defined, and according to how much the farmer contributes to attaining these specific objectives. 'So it's a three-step process that our paradigm uses - old-fashioned directly coupled policies move to decoupling, and from decoupling to targeting. And in terms of the structure of EU policies, you find targeted policies much more in the 2nd pillar than the 1st pillar.'

Food security and biofuels

Biofuels add a further element of demand for agriculture products (and implicitly one that is under the control of policy-makers, unlike increasing demand in India and China). 'Moreover, it is extra demand which is very price-inelastic. In other words, demand is there irrespective of what the price is of these products.'

Tangermann states that according to OECD estimates the achievement of the EU's binding target of replacing 10 per cent of road fuel by biofuels would require something like 50 per cent of the area that is under the 'grand cultures' in the EU, i.e., cereals, oilseeds and sugar. [It should be noted that the EU estimate is much lower at 20 per cent]. 'So, all in all, the benefits of the current biofuels policy are relatively small, but the costs are obvious.'

New technology

Tangermann argues, 'It is high time that we put more resources into agricultural research and technology development. We must also make a better and more successful effort to explain to consumers and the general public what the benefit-risk ratio is in modern biotechnology and their products. People in Europe need to be aware that is a big luxury to say we don't want this modern food on our plates. And it is a luxury that will become more and more expensive.'

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Who gets the money?

We are used to statistics that tell us that France is the biggest beneficiary of the CAP, but a novel way of looking at beneficiaries is to count subsidies per hectare. The EU-15 average is nearly €300 per hectare, but even extrapolating forward to full payments, it is less than €200 per ha for the twelve new member states, Latvia receiving less than €100 per ha.

This is less than 20 per cent of the rate in Greece and Malta, the top beneficiaries per hectare. Of course, Malta has a small agricultural area and the Greek figure reflects the high rate of aid formerly available for tobacco. It is interesting that the liberal (on the CAP) states of Denmark and the Netherlands receive nore than €400 per ha, along with Belgium. The UK is below the median.

In the EU-25, the average SFP payment is equivalent to €6000 a holding, but in Slovakia it is nearly €32 000 a farm and in the Czech Republic €50 000 a farm. The UK average is less than €25 000 a farm. Malta and Cyprus receive the smallest payments and there are eight countries in all, including Italy, which average less than €3000 a farm.

If you had an empty sheet of paper ...

It is often observed that if you had an empty sheet of paper, you wouldn't design the Common Agricultural Policy as it is today. Of course, you probably wouldn't create it at all.

Agra Focus has been having a little bit of springtime fun thinking up a new name for the CAP on the lines of 'a rose by any other name.' The two most plausible suggestions to come forward were FARMER (Food, Agriculture and Rural Measures in the European Union) and SAFE (Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Environment). The latter suggestion certainly encompasses the direction in which the CAP should be going.

The agri-humourists were out in force and the old chestnut of Common Rural and Agricultural Policy came up, as did the newer suggestion of Agricultural, Rural and Sustainable Environment policy. Someone obviously worked hard on 'Special Agricultural and Rural Key Offensive for Zestful Yields.'

Perhaps the corny and somewhat flakey character of the CAP was embodied in COmmon Rural Network for Food, a Living Agriculture and Keeping the Environment Sustainable = CORNFLAKES to save you the bother of working it out.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Food security fears mount

Fears of unrest are increasing in developing countries as shortages develop of staple foods or prices increase substantially. Governments have cut import tariffs to cope with the problem, but hoarding to take advantage of future price rises has exacerbated the difficulties being encountered.

Some of the most serious problems have arisen in relation to rice where prices have risen by 50 per cent in two weeks. Leading exporting countries including Vietnm, India, China and Egypt have banned foreign sales.

Another policy response is to resort to export taxes, a strategy being followed in Argentina, although raising revenue appears to be as much of a motive of ensuring domestic supply. Indeed, the strategy has backfired as farmers have gone on strike and mounted road blocks, emptying cattle markets so that Argentinians cannot get their steaks. President Cristina Fernandez has resorted to the classic Peronist trick of trying to rouse the 'masses' against an alleged privileged group, in this case the farmers.

Given the importance of Argentina as an agricultural exporter, increasing soyabean taxes from 35 per cent to 40 per cent affects world supplies. Grain exports have also been disrupted.

All this is grist to the mill of those who have been calling for self-sufficiency targets in Europe, backed up by the continuation of blanket subsidies. As we have suggested in earlier postings, this rhetoric has had a substantial influence on decision makers. There is a danger of a reversion to a simple minded productionist paradigm, already being celebrated with an element of triumphalism by some farming spokespersons.

A leading exponent of this position is Norfolk farmer and Farmers Weekly columnist David Richardson who has played his cards on this issue well. His paper on the issue suggests that 'it would not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that within the forseeable future it will be necessary to deal with the production of food as during the war.' In the UK it was, of course, the experience of wartime production which led to the 1947 Agriculture Act, creating privileged access to government for the National Farmers' Union and substantial subsidies for its members. Could these halcyon days return?

You can read David Richardson's full paper on line at Richardson . It's a concise statement of an increasingly influential viewpoint.

However, we must avoid a retreat into neo-Malthusian gloom. The gains available from new technology and better agronomic techniques must not be overlooked. Where there has been a policy error is in running down research on improving food production. The privatisation of the state extension service, something that was not done in the United States or, for example, Denmark, was also a mistake which means that there is no neutral body disseminating knowledge to farmers.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Farm subsidy disclosure angers farmers

The Farmers Union of Wales has attacked the decision of the EU to make all farm subsidy receipts public from next year. While farmers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland already have their single farm payment details displayed on the devolved administrations' websites, it is intended to add full names, addresses and postcodes to the published details.

One objection is that this information could be used for criminal purposes such as identity fraud. It is also argued that such information is commercially sensitive. For her part, farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel argues that 'This is taxpayers' money, so it is very important that people know where it is being spent.'

The NFU's SPS adviser said that one key concern was whether the data was accurate. In the NFU's experience there were many inaccuracies. For example, a shortfall in the 2005 payment might be added to 2007 to give an inflated figure. (Strictly speaking, this is not an inaccuracy as it reflects the amount paid, but it could still be misleading).

He also complained that such information could raise the 'unwarranted' interest of the taxman, although I would have thought that if farmers have made an accurate declaration of their income there should not in principle be a problem. It has been argued, however, that the Revenue sometimes misuse their power to investigate the affairs of individual taxpayers.

The issue here is to balance conflict considerations such as transparency and privacy. Transparency is highly valued by economists and public policy analysts, while privacy is a value deeply embedded in British culture. For the information currently made available by some member states, visit Subsidies

Of course, the fundamental concern of some farmers is that more information could lead to more public demands for the abolition of subsidies. However, the relatively diffuse interests of consumers and taxpayers have always been overcome by the more concentrated interests of farmers. For all the criticism they sometimes receive from some farmers, the main farming organisations have done a very effective job of looking after their members' interests.

I was interested to read a letter by a farmer in Farmers' Weekly criticising the recent House of Lords report that called for farm subsidies to be ended. The writer makes the complaint that we are governed by 'intellectuals' which is news to me. I think what he really means is the political class.

He does make the valid point that farmers have become price takers because of the growth of retailer power. The remedy here would be effective competition policy rather than perpetuating subsidies, although politically this is not that easy to achieve.