Sunday, March 23, 2008

The dilemma of Sunk Island

Sunk Island is neither an island nor is it sunken. See Sunk Island . It is a 600 acre area of land south-east of Hull reclaimed from the River Humber more than 200 years ago. A row about its future exemplifies current tensions between food security and environmental concerns.

Farmers there are angry that the prime agricultural land there could be surrendered to the Humber as part of the Department for the Environment's policy of managed realignment. Tenant farmer Geoff Buckie said, 'It is madness that they want to do away with such high-quality land apparently to create more wildlife habitat. They seem to care more about wildlife - at a time when English farming desperately needs to grow more food.'

I don't know enough about the specific case to comment about it, although I can see where the local farmers are coming from. However, in the rush to jump on the food security bandwagon, we must be careful not to start treating the environment as a luxury good again. Climate change deniers are looking increasingly intellectually isolated and a relatively small rise in sea levels could make low lying areas prohibitively expensive to defend.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Co-financing likely, says Parish

Co-financing of the CAP is likely to come in said Neil Parish, British Conservative chair of the European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee in an interview with the excellent AgraFocus. This would reduce discrepancies between net contributors and net beneficiaries. However, he admitted that such a move could be difficult for the new member states, especially if they couldn't afford to introduce co-financing. It might therefore be necessary to have lower co-financing rates for them in the early years to make the change politically acceptable.

Parish noted the current turn towards food security commenting, 'The amazing thing is is that one year ago, most taxpayers would have been looking for a much more environmentally-based farm policy - not so much interested in the agriculture, but more in the landscape, which they still are. One year on, food security is back on the agenda. Taxpayers not only want a good environment, but if food supplies are tight, they will also be expecting the farmers to produce food.'

Other key points:
* It's proving difficult to get the CAP to work in the New Member States. Any further enlargement should be delayed until at least 2013 with the possible exception of Croatia.
* Taxpayers are 'questioning how we spend the money and why ... there has to be more transparency on how taxpayers are paid. In reality now with the SFP - in a lot of member states - you could go on to the websites and find out how much individual farmers are being paid.'
* He paid tribute to Mariann Fischer Boel as a very open Commissoner: 'I believe that a Danish Commissioner and a British Chairman is not a bad combination.'

Parish will be standing down after the next election as he is standing for the Westminster Parliament.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Capping plan dropped

Capping payments to large farmers - which would have particularly hit the UK, Germany and the Czech Republic - appears to have been dropped from the latest version of the CAP 'health check' circulating in Brussels.

Farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel originally intended to make large, progressive cuts to farmer' single farm payments when she launched her health check last November. Her plan was to start with a 10 per cent cut on payments of more than €100,000 (£76,000) increasing to 45 per cent off for payments more than €300,000(£228,000).

The plan would have hit more than 6000 British farmers, including some of the most influential ones such as the Duke of Westminster and others such as Oliver Walston (who is one of the few farmers who opposes subsidies to the ire of the rest of them).

The money was to be retained by each member state and used for so-called 'Article 69' measures - Pillar 1 subsidies targeted at specific sectors. But the lobbyists (including no doubt UK PermRep in Brussels) have been at work and the plan is for additional rates of modulation for larger farmers instead of capping. These would range from 3 per cent modulation for payments in excess of €100,000 to 9 per cent for payments in excess of €300,000.

Of course all this is a sideshow to the need to get rid of subsidies. I was taken to task for this yesterday by someone who argued, quite reasonably, that the battered livestock subsidy could not survive without subsidy. That may be so. It is supposed to be a commercial activity, but the argument then is that we need subsidies for food security reasons.

Even Gordon Brown has bought into this discourse following the recent (good) Cabinet Office Strategy Unit report on food policy. The prime minister is an intelligent man who is justly proud of his academic origins. He should know better.

No one believes that subsidies should disappear overnight. Farmers have to be weaned off them. That is why I think a farmers' bond scheme is a good mechanism for getting rid of them once and for all.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Lords Slam CAP

Farm subsidies should be phased out for good and a significant proportion of the funds released channelled into rural development says a new report from the House of Lords European Union Committee: Lords

The report points out that farm subsidies in their present form are a poorly focused policy instrument. The committee therefore advocates a phased reduction in farm subsidies from 2014.

The chair of the committee, Lord Sewel (who was a junior agriculture minister in Scotland from 1997 to 1999) commented, 'Agricultural interests can no longer be equated with rural interests. Public money should be targeted directly at environmental benefits and rural development goals, rather than being spent on income support for farmers and landowners in the hope that this will produce the desired knock-on effects. We are not persuaded by the argument that the risk of future food shortages should be hedged against by freezing current production patterns.'

NFU economist Carmen Suarez specified five conditions that would have to be met before Pillar 1 supports were removed, including 'policies to enhance agricultural competitiveness' which could well be a device for subsidies under another name.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The great land use debate

Do try and take part in the great RELU land use debate. I have in an effort to argue against attempts to revive productionist approaches to agriculture which threaten to reverse years of effort towards a more rational approach to farm policy. To find out about the debate, go here: RELU