Sunday, June 28, 2009

UK can compete - so does it need subsidies?

Russia and Romania may be two of the cheapest places in the world to produce wheat, byt the UK is only a little way behind. Releasing the result of its Global Cost of Production Challenge, Bidwells Agriculture head of research Carl Atkin, said that despite the higher unit price of inputs in the UK, cost of production per tonne is only marginally higher than in eastern Europe. 'This is because of the considerable yield advantage the UK has, based on first-class soils and a maritime climate.'

Western Europe's temperate maritime climate produces one of the longest and most suitable growing seasons in the world for wheat, Mr Atkin explained. While the soils in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are often of equal or better quality, climatic and weather constraints temper output. In addition, there is considerable yield volatility in other parts of the world, where occasional crop failures need to be factored in. This is partly why UK what production costs per tonne are lower in Australia, Brazil and Canada.

Moreover, post-farmgate costs needed to be factored in. These can be substantial if infrastructure is poor and costs-to-market are high, as is generally the case in Russia. Costs are rsing in places such as Russia and Romania faster tham in, say Australia and Canada, as land and labour costs escalate.

If UK wheat can compete on world markets, do large-scale arable operations in East Anglia really need subsidies to be viable? Of course, re-directing CAP payments elsewhere could simply subsidise efficiency. Introducing a measure such as a cap on payments to large farmers would disadvantage the UK relative to other member states. But this analysis does raise questions about whether blanket subsidies are still required.

Could Doha be back on?

India's new government is eager to resume the Doha round of world trade talks, according to the country's new minister for commerce and industry. Anand Sharma told the Financial Times that India was keen to break the impasse in negotiations. Mr Sharma's tone marks a significant shift from his predecessor, Kamal Nath, who was known for his uncomprising stance in the Doha talks.

Many countries blamed India for the breakdown of ministerial talks a year ago intended to forge a blueprint for concluding the Doha round. The meeting ended in disarray after India and the US failed to reach a compromise over the special safeguard mechanism, designed to protect farmers in poor countries from surges of agricultural imports. Washington said imports should have to increase 40 per cent to trigger safeguard tariffs, whereas India wanted a very low 10 per cent trigger.

World trade negotiations have been the most significant driver for CAP reform for nearly two decades and a resumption of them could counter balance strengthening protectionist forces in Europe.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The debate on the post-2013 CAP

The debate on the future of the CAP after 2013 has now started following the informal Farm Council in the Czech Republic earlier this month. Those who want to influence the debate have about twelve months before the Commission publishes a Communication (effectively a White Paper) on future policy in the summer/early autumn of next year. Formal legislative proposals will then be published in the middle of 2011 together with the proposals for the financial perspectives from 2014 to 2019 or 2020.

At the Farm Council there was a surprisingly strong consensus on maintaining a strong 1st Pillar after 2013, principally in the form of Single Farm Payments (SFP). Britain sent a junior minister, Jane Kennedy, who has since resigned and she made a ritual reptition of the UK Government's position of wanting to phase out direct payments altogether. However, it is clear that this argument is going nowhere and that the French subsidisation discourse is back in the driving seat.

Justifications advanced for subsidy

What are the justifucations for continuing SFP? Are they an income support or are they there to support the provision of public goods? If the former, they are remarkably inefficient as most of the money goes to larger farmers. Commissioner Fischer Boel, however, made the argument that dairy farmers would be in even worse trouble without direct payments.

The Commission has estimated that 40 per cent of farms would disappear in some sectors if the CAP budget was stopped tomorrow - and farmer incomes would drop by more than two-thirds, from levels already below the EU average. No serious analyst is recommending withdrawing the budget overnight. We would rather not be here, but we do not start with a blank sheet of paper. However, objectives need to be clearly stated and prioritised and there needs to be a measureable link between objectives and policy instruments. In other words, no blanket subsidies that do not lead to demonstrable outcomes.

It is argued that the ovearching objective is to maintain farming across the EU, i.e., to avoid rural exodus and abandonment of the land. Leaving the land unfarmed would certainly have negative biodiversity impacts and also impair landscapes, affecting rural tourism. However, there needs to be more emphasis on the overall vigour of the rural economy, reducing its dependence on farming and ensuring that infrastructure such as broadband is in place everywhere.

A widely used argument at the Council was that the higher environmental, food safety, food quality, traceability, animal health and welfare standards that EU producers face in relation to non-EU producers cannot be rewarded by the market and therefore justify subsidies. There is certainly a case here, but the monitoring and enforcement of cross-compliace needs to be substantially improved if these subsidies are to be justified.

The food security argument was also raised and the difficulty with this is that it can become a portmanteau argument for 'business as usual', rather than taking a careful look at what might be required, for example, in terms of climate change adaptation.

Abandoning old forms of calculation

There was broad agreement that the historical reference base must be abandoned to legitimise payments after 2013. The adoption of a regional flat rate payment for all member states seems likely, although Finland is pressing for a differentiation between different types of farms, e.g., arable and livestock. Decoupling is also important, but Finland has argued in favour of coupling in sensitive regions where farming might otherwise stop.

Some are nore equal than others

Retiring European Parliament Agriculture Committee chaurman Neil Parish paraphased Orwell by stating that while all Member States are equal, some are more equal than others. New member states receive less than €200 per hectare in SFP compared with an EU average figure of just over €300. Greece receives more than €500 per hectare and Latvia barely €100.

However, French Minister Michel Barnier made it clear that 'equity was not the same as equality', arguing that a wide range of other criteria should be considered. Commissioner Fischer Boel made it clear that she thought that a flat rate payment across the EU was unrealistic.

Commissioner Fischer Boel has reserved her position about serving a second term as Farm Commissioner, but acknowledged that she would have to come to a decision in the near future.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

SFP to stay - Fischer Boel

Farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel expects Single Farm Payment (SFP) to stay after 2013. 'I believe that some kind of basic income safety net will be needed,' she told an informal farm council meeting in the Czech Republic. Why that cannot be provided by the social security system was not explained.

However, SFPs should be linked to the delivery of public goods 'to avoid further intensification and industrialisation of farming which could entail serious environmental, economic and social consequences.'

She also made it clear that payments should no longer be made on an historic basis. Her view is that there is no sense in two neighbouring farmers getting widely different levels of payment on the basis of what they were doing ten years ago.