Monday, December 20, 2010

Has a grand deal been done?

The future of the Common Agricultural Policy depends on what is decided about the EU budget. And the broad shape of the EU budget is usually decided in grand deals between the leading countries of Europe. Indeed, in the past, the future of the CAP has effectively been decided over lunch between French and German ministers. However, in a larger EU, that is not as simple, although the Franco-German axis is still very strong.

However, this time it looks as if a grand deal may have been done between Britain, France and Germany. David Cameron has been quite an effective negotiator in Europe and for understandable reasons he wants the EU budget frozen in real terms. It's very difficult to inflict misery at home when there is apparent profligacy in Brussels (a lesson that the European Parliament seems slow to learn).

Britain is denying it, but essentially what seems to have been agreed is that Britain's budget rebate, won by Mrs Thatcher, will stay intact although the original justification for it has been undermined. In return France will be able to keep the CAP more or less unscathed. Germany has already sold the pass, as it usually does, by signing up to a joint declaration with France calling for a strong CAP.

Needless to say, the accession states, and in particular Poland, are furious. They want the budget to be maintained and subsidies to their farmers brought in line with the rest of Europe. To some extent that could be achieved within the current budget envelope, although farmers in other member states would lose out.

There is a lot of hard negotiation to come, but it may be, despite denials, that the basic outlines of a deal have been agreed. If that is so, it will be a disappointment, but not a surprise, for the CAP reform camp.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Alliances and stances over CAP reform

The process of CAP reform is always marked by informal alignments or alliances between member states and there seems to be something of a rapprochement between Britain and Poland: Poland

Both countries support a shift of spending from pillar one (direct payments to farmers) to pillar two (more public goods oriented). However, the UK wants pillar one to be phased out, while Poland wants an equal split between the two pillars.

The two countries agree in principle that subsidies for farmers in older member states and the accession states must be equalised, a key agenda item for East European countries. However, Britain doubts whether it will be possible to go as far as a flat rate.

However, in a different alignment, Austria is backing France and Germany in calls for a strong farm budget, but opposes Warsaw's idea of a fixed rate of subsidies. France is confident that its stance is gaining broad support and that the CAP budget can be retained at around the current level: France

Monday, December 13, 2010

Carry on intervening

Conservative MEP and spokesman for agriculture Richard Ashworth has called for the return of intervention purchasing in the CAP in the interests of food security. He told a conference at the Royal Agricultural College: 'It's absolutely vital to have some sort of instrument through which you can intervene in the market - a tool or lever the Commission can use in times of crisis'. The only 'tried and tested' way to do this was through intervention.

Historically, intervention purchasing was a highly distorting policy instrument which was why there was a shift of guarantee expenditure to Single Farm Payments. It gave farmers a risk free market for their produce at a price which generally exceeded the marginal cost of production. Hence, farmers were incentivised to over produce, depressing the market price. It also encouraged more intensive forms of farming which inflicted environmental damage.

I suppose the argument could be that food security demands that we produce more in Europe. Leaving aside the implications for other parts of the world that would like to export to Europe, intervention buying is a crude and imperfect mechanism to achieve this objective.

There is a case for intervention in times of crisis to prevent the market for a particular commodity collapsing completely with damaging effects on production in the longer term. But there is also a risk of temporary help in crisis being converted to a permanent subsidy. All such interventions must be for a clearly defined time period and limited in scope.

Interestingly, Mr Ashworth did admit that a recent analysis showed that only 18 per cent of CAP spending delivered value in the areas of jobs, growth and competitiveness. This would make the current CAP share of the EU budget difficult to defend and he thought it might well drop to around 37.5 per cent.

Why there is a case for county farms

The demographic profile of farmers in Europe, not least in Britain, is an ageing one. To some extent the figures may be misleading as younger members of a family may be involved in the farm enterprise, but as junior partners or salaried employees. Tensions between the generations are a recurrent theme in fictional programmes like The Archers. They happen in real life on farms, too.

Farming does need an influx of younger people who are not only more energetic but are open to new ideas and new ways of farming and have a recognition of the importance of dialogue with the consumer. Some older farmers have modified their views and taken new initiatives, but they are often more resitance to change and accustomed to a world in the task was maximising production with generous assistance from the taxpayer.

It is, however, very difficult to get into farming except through inheritance. Of course, you can be a farm manager and many go down that route. But ownership or even tenancy is more difficult. The entry price in terms of start up capital is too high a barrier for many.

That is why county farms have played an important role. They were originally provide for under the 1908 Smallholdings and Allotment Acts, although most of them were created between the two world wars to provide smallholding opportunities for landless agricultural workers and soldiers returning home from the war.

They are rented out by county councils and sometimes it is possible to progress from a smaller holding to a larger one and then eventually to your own farm. Of course, many farmers stay on the county council farm.

Many of them are not really large enough to support a family. Most of the county estates are made up of farms of around 100 acres, too small to compete with larger farms, but arguably too large for smallholding type enterprises serve the local market. In practice the tenant often relies on the farmer's partner (usually a woman) obtaining paid employment as, for example, a teacher or a nurse.

This week the full extent of the cuts being made to local government budgets will be made known, but it is evident that local authorities are going to taken a big, front loaded hit. Some county councils have already sold off their farms, e.g., Oxfordshire, while others such as Buckinghamshire and Somerset look like going down that route.

It's a way of paying down debts, but it potentially harms the structure of farming. When asked about the sale of county farms the leader of Somerset County Council argued, 'It's not our core business.' Maybe it isn't, but it is still arguably worthwhile business for rural county councils.

The case for these farms is made by Simon Fairlie in a special issue on Land in the latest edition of the excellent Food Ethics journal published by the Food Ethics Council. See: Food Ethics

I'm not sure I agree with Fairlie's argument that there is an opportunity for the revival of smallholdings to meet demand for local food. To me this seems like a reversion to the nostalgic idea of spade husbandry advocated by some Chartists in the early 19th century.

Semi-subsistence farming is not the way ahead for the Global South or developed countries, but there is a case for providing opportunities for motivated and innovative farmers to pursue farming as a career. The case for government intervention can be made on food security grounds.