Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Do subsidies keep the cost of food down?

Canberra, ACT: Jack Thurston over at the CAP Health Check blog recently set me a challenge. An argument that is increasingly heard is that farm subsidies are a good thing because they keep the cost of food down at a time of economic recession.

First, it's an inefficient way of delivering the subsidy to those most in need. In so far as the cost is reduced, the benefit reaches the rich as well as the poor. It would be better to ensure that the least well off members of the population had enough money for a balanced and nutritious diet.

Second, the protectionist aspects of the CAP mean that consumers in the EU do not have unhindered access to agricultural goods at world market prices. The EU price is generally above the world price.

What about the single farm payment? Much of the money spent on the CAP does not reach the farmer, but is absorbed by administrative costs (pushed up by the complexity of the system), traders and food processors (just look at how much Tate & Lyle has received) and by criminal organisations.

As a rational decision-maker, the farmer is not going to use the subsidy to lower prices. He may invest in the farm, thereby benefiting suppliers of agricultural equipment which is why they favour the CAP so much. Or he may decide to use the money for personal consumption - or more likely some mixture of both.

Some of my colleagues at Warwick HRI think that food is too cheap. By that they mean that it costs so little that people do not value it enough and the emphasis is on low cost production, regardless of some of the negative externalities. There is something in this, but one has to consider the impact of higher food prices on the constrained budget of the typical family.

Monday, February 16, 2009

You can go to hell

Perth, WA: Coming to Australia always gives you a fresh perspective on matter agricultural. This is the prominent headline in The Countryman weekly which refers to a 66-year old Danish woman who is going to knock the guts out of the Australian dairy industry.

Quite what her age, nationality or gender has got to do with it is another matter, but the message about the restoration of export refunds and the actions of farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel is crystal clear. It is backed up by an interview with an indignant Australian farmer.

One good point that the articles does make is that the EU cares little about the health of the global dairy industry and perhaps in time of food security concerns it should.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Can the old policy instruments have any effect?

The resort to intervention buying and export refunds in the dairy sector has been predictably bad PR for the EU, especially in the southern hemisphere. But a more fundamental question is, can these tired old policy instruments work any magic in a deep economic crisis?

What is likely to happen, judging by past experience, is that exporting countries like New Zealand will lower their prices in response in order to retain global market share. The net effect is that world prices are depressed even further and this does not help EU producers or certainly not the more efficient ones who are seeking to compete on the world market.

Wheeling out the old policy instruments may give partial satisfaction to farm lobbyists, but it is not really going to help prices or farm incomes. The unpalatable fact is that an internationally competitive EU dairy industry might have a better chance of bringing prosperity to EU dairy farmers. But that would mean marginal farmers in politically sensitive areas like Bavaria and Britanny going out of production. And that is too high a price to pay for a net efficiency gain.