Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The European crisis, Britain and the CAP

The outcome of the eurozone crisis remains unknown, although none of the measures taken so far have really tackled the fundamental problems of sovereign debt and structural uncompetitiveness in Southern Europe.

What effects will the exercise of the British 'veto' have on attempts to reform the CAP? NFU policy director Martin Haworth is one of the most experienced individuals in agricultural politics and policy and he told Farmers Weekly that only time would tell if Britain would be marginalised in Europe and hence have less influence on a range of issues.

He made a distinction between Britain's largely unsuccessful attempts to secure CAP reform and broader efforts on regulation. He noted, 'The UK has pursued CAP reform policies ... which have pursued UK negotiators on the margins of the debate, so it is unlikely that Mr Cameron's actions will change the way in which the UK is already viewed with regards to CAP.'

'However, on broader regulatory matters where the British voice has been heard in recent years, for example on environmental and market regulation matters, Mr Cameron's actions may affect Britain's influence in the EU.'

The NFU is concerned about a scenario in which agricultural powers were repatriated to the UK, although Eurosceptics have focused mainly on various forms of labour market protection and the Common Fisheries Policy.

A NFU briefing document states that 'A worst-case scenario would see the UK remaining in the single market but regaining autonomy over support arrangements.' The NFU fears 'That would allow the Treasury to achieve its long-standing goal of removing direct payments altogether.'

Supposing Britain left the EU or repatriated CAP payments, the withdrawal of subsidies overnight would cause chaos in agriculture. In principle one might want to see a return to a deficiency payments system which was the more market attuned form of subsidy that existed before Britain joined the EU.

However, in practice, it would be costly to dismantle the existing (albeit rather inefficient) administrative apparatus and replace it with a new one. One would therefore have to pay farmers the SFP on an historic basis, tapering the amount paid over time so that one might start at 90 per cent of the existing payment.

More radically one could compensate farmers for the subsidy by issuing them with interest bearing bonds which could also be sold on the market but that would probably be unacceptable to the parties involved.

Meanwhile British farmers who had opted to be paid in euros have been converting them into pounds on the spot market rather than waiting for a more favourable rate (which, of course, might well not materialise).

It is generally larger farmers who take payments in euros and they usually have some form of relatively sophisticated risk management in place, including hedging.

The crisis has also injected some uncertainty into the market that trades in English Single Farm payment entitlements. If CAP reform is not agreed in time for the 2014 claim, which in my view is more than likely, the purchase of entitlements now would give buyers access to claims for the years of 2012, 2013 and 2014 for little more than the value of one year's SFP.

Leading broker Webb Paton is reported to be doing about 15 deals a day. The existence of such a secondary market might seem to be perverse but, given that we have farm subsidies, it is a 'second best' solution that facilitates their more efficient allocation.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Biopesticides on the march

I have just returned from an Informa conference on biopesticides (or biocontrol) in Amsterdam where I talked about the implications of the new EU legislation on plant protection products which is now starting to be implemented.

What was striking about the conference was not only the relatively large attendance (100), but also the number of large chemical companies present, particularly from the United States. Monsanto, Bayer and BASF were out in force while the largest specialist biocontrol company, AgraQuest, was also strongly represented.

The market for biocontrol products is now growing much faster than that for synthetic chemical products, the availability of which is diminishing. Of 400 or so active ingredients now authorised in the EU, getting on for a quarter are biocontrol products.

The biggest market for biocontrol products up to now has been in protected crops (greenhouses and polytunnels). There is certainly scope in field vegetables where residue issues are important for the final consumer, but we are some way off broad spectrum products which can be used extensively on arable crops.

Historically there were some poor products on the market which did not help the reputation of the industry. The so-called 'grey market' products or bio stimulants, which are generally outside the scope of regulation, are also a challenge in marketing terms.

For growers biocontrol products offer a lower kill rate and often lower stability because of their very character. They also require more technical expertise in their use. They can, however, be used in combinaton with chemical products in many cases which is consistent with the EU policy of integrated pest management.

There is no doubt that the US has done a better job than the EU in promotning and regulating these products (this is also true of the life sciences industry more generally). The new EU regulatory framework, including zonal mutual recognition, should make life easier but the devil is in the detail.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Green space controversy grows

The controversy over the so-called 'Green Space' in the CAP reform proposals is growing: Green Space

A somewhat embattled farm commissioner, Dacian Ciolos, is insistent that the proposals do not amount to set aside. As farm as farm organizations are concerned, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck ...

The farm lobby is up in arms over this proposal and are citing food security arguments advanced by the G20. However, this is not a straightforward food security/productionism versus the environment argument. I am concerned that the Commission has devised a rather blunt policy instrument that would not be very effective in achieving its objectives and would have too many unintended consequences.

Admittedly some of the more subtle policy instruments in Pillar 2 have not always worked well in terms of additionality, i.e., achieving something that would not have been achieved without spending public money. Devising policy instruments that make a difference without too many side costs is not easy, but the effort needs to continue.

The linked report also refers to the enhanced role of the European Parliament in the decision-making process. This may be an advance for democracy, but not necessarily for coherent policies and effective reform.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Doha lite?

The recent G-20 summit was understandably dominated by the eurozone crisis so little attention was paid to the fact that leaders decided to effectively abandon all hopes of achieving a full blown Doha Round settlement and instead see if they could achieve a 'Doha lite'.

Many analysts think that they will achieve nothing. Either way this effectively means the end of 'Rounds' as a way of progressing international trade negotiations. Given the economic backdrop, it also means the end of further breakthroughs towards liberalisation, although the dispute settlement process could still spring some surprises, particularly in relation to agriculture.

The trend towards bilateral deals will be reinforced. Compared with a multilateral framework, such deals tend to be more asymmetrical, so this is not really a gain for the Global South, not that least developed countries got that much outof multilateral negotiations. It was agricultural exporters like Brazil that stood to benefit.

The global financial crisis has obviously shifted priorities over this issue. However, at the very least a ‘Doha-lite’ deal for developing nations will be discussed at a World Trade Organisation meeting in December this year, with an aim of reaching a consensus in time for the 2012 G20 summit in Mexico.

Will progress be possible in agriculture? The EU may stick to its promise to phase out export subsidies, although possibly later than planned given that CAP reform is likely to be delayed. However, EU is unlikely to give much more ground on market access and the US will defend politically sensitive subsidies for crops such as cotton.

It may be that a shortage of government money will now drive reform, but budgetary changes are open to fudging and they never provided as sure a pressure for reform as international trade negotiations. At the end of the day, manufacturing and service industry interests did not want to see potentially lucrative deals derailed by agriculture. These trade offs were one of the benefits of a multilateral negotiating framework.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Good objective, wrong means

Choosing the right policy instrument to achieve your policy goal is of central importance in designing and implementing an effective agricultural policy as I argued in an article in West European Politics in 2010:
Policy instruments

I am very much of the view that environmental policy needs to be embedded in the CAP, but one has to do this in a way that achieves ecological objectives without unnecessarily undermining production.

The Commission's notion of a 'balanced' rotation seems sensible on the surface. After all, farmers rotate their crops for agronomic reasons that have been understood for centuries, at least in principle.

Monocultures of wheat and oilseed rape (canola) crops have been becoming more extensive in Europe and they can have a landscape impact, although personally I quite like the yellow of oilseed rape.

Part of the Commission's motivation seems to be an idea that rotation would cut the pesticide bill, but there are other ways of doing that. It could also disproportionately hit farmers on heavy soil who rely on wheat/wheat/rape rotations.

The proposals require farmers to grow at least three different crops, with none exceeding 70 per cent of the total farm area and the third not less than 5 per cent.

Not only is this meddling in business decisions, it also could hit small farms very hard as only those below 3 hectares are excluded. Member states with many small arable farms may have something to say about this.

In the meantime the Commission really needs to send this proposal back to its Daft Ideas Department and return to the drawing board.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The last one left standing

Last week East Malling Research kindly invited me to give the annual Amos Memorial Lecture at the research station. My theme was 'Food: Safe, Sustainable, Sufficient?' They videoed the lecture so I will post a link if it becomes available, not that I can see it going viral.

I was able to have a short tour of the station which is effectively the last horticultural research station we have in England. As the Applied Crops Research Centre, what was Warwick HRI is doing its best, but it is a shadow of its former self. There are a few post-1992 universities who do some work, but they lack economies of scale and the concentration of different kinds of expertise which allows people to bring together various forms of knowledge to solve problems.

East Malling is fortunate in the sense that its land is owned by a trust which gives it security of tenure and provides it with some income. Its centenary is approaching and an appeal for a new laboratory is to be launched.

Applied research involves identifying the problems faced by growers and farmers and working with them to provide long-term, sustainable solutions. It enables productivity to be improved but in a sustainable way. At East Malling, they are doing important work on water conservation which is going to be one of the biggest challenges for world farming in the decades ahead.

Applied research is a practical way of tackling problems of food security. Diversion of some of the money spent on the CAP for this purpose would yield substantial dividends.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Is Europe losing touch with reality?

Stefan Tangermann

Is Europe losing touch with reality? One might think so given the surprise Greek decision to hold a referendum on the austerity package. The fear of contagion is very real and if the euro is confined to a small core of northern member states, the single market project will be undermined. One of the main justifications for creating the euro was the need to avoid competitive devaluations between member states.

It also ended the nonsense of green money, now largely forgotten, but one of the more bizarre and distorting aspects of the CAP (which is saying something). Somewhere in Brussels we should have a sculpture commemorating the switchover mechanism as an awful warning.

However, it is also a question that leading agricultural economist Stefan Tangermann has posed in relation to the CAP reform proposals announced last month.

The former OECD director for trade and agriculture argues that the reform proposals do not reflect the economic realities that Europe currently finds itself in. It is unfortunate that the policy planning calendar dictates that the European Commission must make vital decisions on the CAP through to 2020 but Tangermann claims the proposals fall short of an adequate response to perhaps the biggest crisis the trading bloc has ever faced.

But he is not alone in his criticism of the reform plans. It appears that dissatisfaction with almost every aspect of the proposals is rife and MEPs were given the opportunity to vent their frustrations at the Special Committee on Agriculture (SCA) meeting in Brussels last week.

In stark contrast to farm commissioner Dacian Cioloş’ assertion that the reform proposals would simplify the various administrative mechanisms within the CAP, MEPs claimed that the European Commission’s proposals for CAP reform are costly, complex and fail to distribute fairly between member states.

Ciolos is in danger of being seen as the least effective farm commissioner since Réne Steichen who was also seen as a trojan horse for France. Like Ciolos, he was educated in France but at the end of the day he turned out to be somewhat less beholden to France than expected.

The European Parliament is also concerned about moves by national governments to cut almost €500 million from CAP spending in 2012 last week. Instead, they re-affirmed their backing for the European Commission’s draft budget plan issued in April, which proposes a 2.3 per cent CAP budget rise within a wider 5.2 per cent year-on-year increase in commitments.

This is, of course, a dangerously nonsensical proposition against the background of serious budget deficits in Europe. If there is a collapse of the eurozone it will look even more so.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

'Greening' measures prove controversial

The 'greening' measures proposed in the Commission's CAP reform plans attracted criticism from several countries at last week's Farm Council in Luxembourg.

Defra secretary Caroline Spelman argued that the measures to take 7 per cent of land out of production amounted to a return to set aside. There was too much focus on taking measures in Pillar 1 rather than proven approaches in Pillar 2: Pillars

The Commission maintains that the measures are aimed at marginal land, but it does seem to be a rather blunt policy instrument. Having said that, not everything done in Pillar 2 has been cost effective by any means.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

CAP reform proposals have no friends

The Commission's proposals for the reform of the CAP have not gone down well in any quarter and have managed to draw fire from Britain and France: Reform

Of course, it was ever thus and one is never going to devise a reform that is welcomed in all quarters. However, Franz Fischler as commissioner had a new vision for the CAP which was more adjusted to contemporary realities. He also showed great subtlety in the tactics that he used to secure some real changes in the CAP, albeit that much was left to be done.

One suspects with the present reform that it very much 'business as usual' with some greening at the edges. It is far from clear that the 'greening' element has been well designed and will actually achieve its aims and here the French have a point.

Similarly, the capping of payments has a populist appeal as it seems to target 'fat cat' farmers, but once again it reflects the confusion and uncertainty that surrounds what the real objectives of the CAP are. Is it a social policy, is it about food security or is it about a competitive and efficient agriculture? One doubts whether it is about the last objective.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

No great suprises in CAP reform proposals

There are no great surprises in the widely leaked Commission proposals for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy released today: CAP reform

Also, not surprisingly, UK ministers have criticised the proposals as inadequate.

The reform proposals have been overshadowed by the eurozone crisis which has understandably been dominating the EU agenda and media discussion. Its outcome will shape the future of the EU.

However, whatever shape the future eurzone takes, it is likely that budgetary pressures will ultimately play a substantial part in influencing the outcome of the CAP reform discussions.

Friday, October 07, 2011

CAP reforms 'turning clock back'

Farm minister Jim Paice has luanched an outspoken attack on farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos, accusing him of 'turning the clock back' in his proposals for CAP reform.

Paice was addressing a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference. He hinted at disappointment that the efforts that he and secretary of state Caroline Spelman had made to build relationships in Europe had not paid off.

Read more here: CAP reform

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dual blast on CAP from Court of Auditors

The Court of Auditors has delivered a dual blast at the CAP. The first report considers the £2.5bn of spending a year on agri-environmental schemes. It argues that poor design makes it difficult to assess the extent to which agri-environmental schemes achieve their goals: Agri-environmental

The Court found that objectives set by the member states were numerous and not specific enough for assessing whether or not they have been achieved. Although the environmental pressures are identified in rural development programmes, they cannot be easily used to provide a clear justification of agri-environmental payments.

There were considerable problems about the relevance and reliability of management information. In particular, very little information was available on the environmental benefits of agri-environmental payments.

The report is significant given the declared intention to 'green' the CAP in the next stage of reform.

In a report just released the Court has criticised the mechanism used by the European Commission to recover undue payments made under the EU's €55 billion-a-year Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): Recovery

The ECA found that 90 per cent of the amounts listed as recoveries in the EU's annual accounts represented reimbursements from national budgets rather than actual recoveries from CAP beneficiaries. Its report says that while this approach protects the financial interests of the EU, it diminishes the deterrent effect of recovery from beneficiaries.

Following an earlier report in 2004, changes implemented in 2006 had improved matters by providing more accurate information and greater detail on debts and recoveries at member state level. However, the system had certain shortcomings such as running the risk of encouraging the write-off of debt as early possible or reporting debt as late as possible.

There were also, not surprisingly, variations in the conduct of member states. This meant that debts were recognised at different times, reported figures were not comparable, interest was applied inconsistently and the point in time at which debts could be witten off varied significantly. All of this had a negative financial impact on the EU budget.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

OECD calls for farm subsidies to go

The OECD is arguing that currently relatively high farm prices provide a window of opportunity to scrap farm subsidies: OECD

If only it were so, but the underlying politics does not permit it. Farmers will point out that input prices have also risen and mobilise food security arguments to justify the need for subsidies. Veteran Farmers Weekly columnist David Richardson is even waving the threat of food rationing in the latest attempt to alarm politicians and consumers.

In fact the rise in commodity prices has reduced the share of farm incomes that comes from subsidies. Across the OECD countries this fell from 22 per cent in 2009 to 8 per cent in 2010. It is consistent with a long-term declining trend.

This is not because subsidies have been cut in response to the fiscal crisis, but because of a reduction in countercyclical payments. Even so the 34 OECD member countries spent $277bn last year subsidising their farmers. Subsidies account for about 9 per cent of US farmers' income, but the figure is 28 per cent in the EU.

China has jumped on the subsidies bandwagon. The amount paid out last year went up to a record $147bn, an increase of 40 per cent on the preceding year. This pushed the share of Chinese farm income drawn from subsidies to 17 per cent, near the OECD average of 18 per cent. Direct payments to grain farmers in China have been consistently increasing since their introduction in 2004.

Britain and Poland have issued a joint statement calling for CAP reform and in particular less emphasis on Pillar 1. Poland joining the reform camp is a step forward, although it is interesting that one of the stipulations is a convergence of direct payments across the EU. See more here: Poland

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sugar quotas to go

The EU is to end sugar quotas and guaranteed minimum prices in 2016. This represents a one year extension after the scheduled end to quotas to give producers more time to adjust: Sugar

It is hoped that the change will boost output and reduce prices by as much as 8.2 per cent. It will also align the EU more closely with world markets, boosting exports and reducing imports.

It has a taken a long time to reform the sugar regime, but this is another step towards a more market oriented system.

Greening element in CAP reform increased

The European Commission is proposing to increase the greening element in the CAP reform in relation to Pillar 1 measures: Greening

The proportion of farmland to be placed in ecological measures would be increased from the previously proposed 5 per cent to 7 per cent. Such features include fallow terraces, landscape features, buffer strips and afforested areas.

It is also proposed that farmers should grow a third arable crop covering at least five per cent of their farmed area. This seems to be an intervention in commercial judgments by the farmer which may not bring commensurate environmental benefits despite concerns about monocultures.

Needless to say, farming unions are not happy with these proposals which they are presenting as a threat to food security.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Farm incomes up

Farm incomes are up in the EU, but there is considerable variation across member states. EU farm incomes jumped by almost 13% last year, thanks to higher crop and milk prices, but the UK was among just seven member states to see a drop.

The biggest increases in earnings are attributed to Denmark (an astonishing 57% higher), Estonia (+46%), the Netherlands (+39%) and France (+34%). The UK, however, recorded income 6% lower than a year earlier. It should also be noted that key input prices such as fuel and fertilisers have been on an upward trend.

In the UK's case, exchange rates have been a significant factor. The 2010 statistics reflect a decline in the exchange rate at which payments through EU direct aid schemes were converted from euros to sterling. In the UK, this meant a fall in the value of the Single Payment Scheme and other payments of some 12 per cent.

Interestingly, the statistics reveal that a mere 15% of EU farmers claim 85% of CAP subsidies.

The same figures also show that farmers in general are still relying heavily on CAP subsidies – Pillar One and Pillar Two funds made up 42% of farm incomes last year, up from 39% in 2008. This shows a worrying dependence on subsidies and illustrates why it is so difficult to dismantle them or even reduce them substantially.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Farm subsidies face cut in US

There's nothing like a budget crisis for focussing the mind and it looks as if farm subsidies in the US may be facing cutbacks, even the politically well entrenched cotton subsidy: Subsidies

Quite how those pressures will play out in the tortuous EU budget process is another matter. In the US there is a direct trade off with spending on health and education. In the EU these are domestic budgetary responsibilities.

France seems confident that the existing budget can be defended, but there may well be some trimming.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Birdlife International critique greening delivery mechanisms

Birdlife International have understandably welcomed the Commission's stated intention to devote 30 per cent of Pillar 1 funding to 'greening' the CAP. They think that it could make a real difference in terms of the delivery of public goods by the CAP.

However, as always the devil is in the detail and they think that some of the proposed policy instruments are not fit for purpose. Indeed, on a scorecard they fail six of the twelve and give an 'unclear' rating to the other six.

Read their report here: Birdlife

Defra tries to revive reform coalition

Defra is trying to revive a coalition of support for radical reform of the CAP, holding meetings with Sweden and Denmark: Reform

Of course any coalition would need a broader base of support. In the past the Netherlands has joined in and at one time a particular political conjunction in Italy which no longer exists attracted their support. Liberally oriented former Communist states might also be supporters, but they will be hoping to get higher payments out of any settlement.

In any case the real obstacle to reform is the determination of France to maintain subsidy and protection. It usually has the support of Germany as part of broader political trade offs.

Of course, if the eurozone crisis deepens, as it threatens to, all bets may be off.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Storm of protest greets 'capping' plans

A storm of protest from farmers and their representatives has greeted the leak of European Commission plans to cap Single Farm Payments (SFPs) to large farms. The proposals should have come as no surprise as the Commission sets out to meet imperatives to cut the CAP budget and make it superficially fairer. However, critics say that the move undermines the international competitiveness of EU agricultire.

Under the leaked proposals individual farmers receiving above €150,000 (£132,000) in payments would lose 20 per cent of that support with the amount increasing proportionately for those raising larger sums. There would be an overall limit of €300,000.

The cutbacks would not apply to the so-called 'greening' element of Pillar 1. They would also take account of farms with large workforces through a so-called 'salaried labour intensity' indicator. However, most large farms are relatively capital intensive and make extensive use of contractors who presumably would not count.

The Commission intends to introduce legislation to close a loophole that might be available to farmers by splitting up their holdings into separate legal entities or transferring payments to relatives. Some of them may have already done this or still have a period of grace to do so.

In a sense this is a shift in the direction of confirming that the CAP is essentially a social policy for marginal farmers. Competitiveness is a formal objective, but has always been given relatively little attention.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Not so sweet?

Warwick University's Ben Richardson takes a look at sustainability issues surounding the sugar industry: Sugar

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What does the budget mean?

Sophia Davidova, president of the Agricultural Economics Society, offers her assessment (reproduced from the AES Newsletter):

The Communication from the European Commission on the budget for Europe 2020 is now in the public domain. Does it answer questions such as: whether the CAP budget will be consistent with the vision for future CAP developments; will the direction taken in previous CAP reforms for incremental increases in the funding of Pillar 2 be maintained or there will be a U-turn to what I call a ‘counter-modulation' towards transferring funds from Pillar 2 to Pillar 1; and to what extent will the CAP budget be maintained in real terms? These questions directly target the core justification for the CAP. But if there is no strengthening of Pillar 2, this may undermine the public value of CAP expenditure as a response to the priorities of the European citizens for ecosystem services and rural development.

The budget for the CAP for 2014-20 in 2011 prices is €372 bn, plus €15bn for research and innovation. Year on year the budget for ‘Sustainable Growth: natural resources' will decrease in real terms - by 10% from 2014 to 2020. On the other hand, expenditure on ‘Smart and inclusive growth' (including competitiveness and cohesion) will increase by 17.7%. The allocations plainly assume 2% annual inflation to maintain the budget for both Pillars 1 and 2 constant in nominal terms. The decline in the share of the total budget taken by total CAP expenditure will continue, reaching 33% in 2020 (from 39% in 2014).

It is difficult to say if this budget is a victory for the supporters of CAP and in particular Pillar 2, which recent rumours preceding the decision suggested. However, the lack of political will to rebalance funds in favour of Pillar 2 means that the EU will hardly be able to tackle the enormous rural and agri-environmental tasks ahead - unless we believe that mandatory Greening of Pillar 1 will deliver significant environmental public goods.

The budget could not be anything else than a compromise with such divergent interests amongst the EU-27. Many Member States, not just the UK, have criticised it as too generous. There will be debates on the own resource proposals, and what happens to the adjustments and rebates. It is also worth remembering that there are disagreements on the CAP budget even within the UK between government departments, and between DEFRA and the devolved administrations. Although a compromise, there is no certainty that these are the budgetary outlays that will be decided and implemented, since the European Parliament and the Council will have their say on the Commission communication. Thus, the uncertainty continues.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Real term cuts in CAP budget

Now that more information is becoming available about the CAP budget 'freeeze', it is evident that what is really envisaged are real term cuts. The envelope for the CAP post 2013 is €371.7bn in 2011 constant figures (€281.8bn of that is first pillar and €89.9bn second pillar). This compares to €417bn in the current financial perspectives. There is yet much to be decided in terms of how policy will be revised in the light of these budgetary constraints.

A system of 'reverse modulation' was envisaged whereby money could be shifted back from the second to the first pillar, but after protests by environmental lobby groups this was axed at the last minute. 30 per cent of direct support will be made contingent on adhering to greening measures that go beyond current cross-compliance requirements.

There will be a slow convergence process to address the differences in direct payments received by member states, i.e., those that have will not see it disappear immediately. The long-term aim is to ensure that all member states reach 90 per cent of the EU average, but significantly this will take account of differences in wage levels and input costs. The main beneficiaries of this approach are likely to be the Baltic States, Portugal and Romania. Poland and Bulgaria will gain only marginally.

There has been some backing down on the capping of support to major agricultural holdings which will now take account of the 'economies of scale of larger structures and the direct employment these structures generate.' How these might be measured could in itself be controversial. Any savings would be retained in national envelopes and recycled into budgetary allocations for rural development, but influential, large-scale farmers will still lobby hard on this topic.

Environmental groups took the view that the proposed measures did not represent effective steps towards ecological sustainability and a green economy.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Farmers' unions accept CAP budget proposals

Although they are concerned about particular aspects of the CAP budget proposals, such as the flexibility to transfer funds between the two pillars, farmers leaders are unsurprisingly generally satisfied with the deal against a background of fiscal austerity: Budget

Not surprisingly, farming organisations want to claim some of the credit, but much of it must go to France for a resolute defence of what it sees as its interests. It helps if the farm commissioner has strong French links and understands the French point of view.

Equally, the RSPB, as a leading spokesperson for conservation interests, is less happy. C'est la vie.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

China goes nutty

World supply and demand patterns for food are being affected by the development of a prosperous middle class, not least in China. Such developments provide challenges, but also opportunities for food producers and exporters. Moreover, in a market economy, production substitution can occur.

In China an appetite for healthier living has stoked demand for nuts, sending prices of cashews and other snacks to record levels. The trading price for cashew kernels is up more than 60 per cent from a year ago, walnuts are up 43 per cent and pecan kernels are up 38 per cent.

The Chinese have always enjoyed nuts, but the recent boom reflects a growing awareness of their health benefits. They are rich in vitamin E, oils and proteins. Walnuts are considered good for the kidney and the brain. In a country where traditional forms of medicine remain strong, recent news reports that pistachios prevent prostate cancer has triggered a rush for the nuts.

China used to be a net exporter of walnuts but is now a net importer. Imports from California doubled last year, making a small dent in the US trade deficit. Product substiution seems likely to occur with almonds, which are cheaper than most nuts, taking the place of cashews.

One must not forget that large portions of the Chinese population have Global South levels of income. On a per capita basis Chinese consumption remains low compared with developed countries but for nuts and other foods this will continue to change as the Chinese economy grows.

As far as the CAP is concerned, I must confess that I have forgotten how the support regime for nuts works. It just shows how much detail and complexity there is in the policy. I do know, however, that the Court of Auditors has criticised over payments in Spain and Greece.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Initial win for France

France has won the first round of the CAP budget negotiations with the Commission recommending that the farm budget should be frozen in real terms up to 2020, although additional provision would be made for the accession of Croatia and a €500m 'crisis intervention fund': Budget

Of course this is only the first stage in a long battle. The budget plans also assume a 5 per cent increase in the overall budget at a time of fiscal austerity and the UK has made it clear that it will oppose this increase. If it went ahead it would shrink the CAP share of the budget from 45 per cent to 38 per cent despite the total farm envelope being protected.

This budget recommendation might seem to confirm the view that French educated farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos is in the pocket of Paris. NFU president Peter Kendall recently criticised him for favouring a bucolic view of the countryside that promoted small, traditional farms (which are numerous in Romania) Mr Kendall said that Mr Ciolos had taken a 'Lark Rise to Candelford' view of agriculture which was old fashioned and shunned development.

There are concerns that the complexity of the changes proposed for the CAP and the delays which result from co-decision mean that any new package will not be brought into place by the target date of 1 January 2014. It might have to be delayed for one year.

It has become increasingly evident that the CAP in its current form will outlive me but I wonder if it will also outlive my granddaughter who starts secondary school in September.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Why lack of data affects food prices

One of the outcomes of the G20 food summit last week was an agreement to create a global database in an effort to better measure the level of supply, consumption and inventories of staple foods.

There is a justifiable view that insufficient information is contributing to volatilty in food markets. A price spike in 2007-8 was triggered by a fears of a shortage leading to bans on overseas sales and the hoarding of supplies. However, when better data became available, it was evident that fears of a shortage were misplace.

Outside the US little is known about the true state of supply, demand and inventories of staples. China, Russia and India are unwilling to share information with others about stocks in particular because they fear they could lose control over prices. Indeed, in China, such information is regarded as a state secret.

An earlier G8 initiative on oil markets is still struggling ten years after it was initiated. The agriculture market information system (Amis) has insufficient resources with the project based at the cash-strapped Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN.

It's a good idea which should enable markets to work better but whether it can be really effective remains to be seen.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sarko's regulation crusade makes modest progress

President Sarkozy of France has been on a crusade to regulate agricultural commodity markets and he made modest progress at a two-day G20 conference in Paris last week. France made food security and commodity regulation a centrepiece of its G20 presidency after the 2007-8 food crisis and the rise of more than a third in global food prices over the last year.

France was able to secure a diluted deal to recommend that G20 finance ministers tackle the regulation of financial commodities markets. The communiqué agreed at the end of the Paris summit echoes an earlier deal by finance ministers to study limiting the number of contracts speculators can hold.

However, some argue that commodity markets bring a much needed liquidity to the farm sector. Last week the World Bank took the rare step of encouraging developing countries to buy insurance in the derivatives market against sudden changes in food prices with a deal that would allow the nations to hedge some $4bn worth of commodities.

The World Bank has struck a deal with investment bank JPMorgan who would offer simplified hedging instruments to the private sectors of developing nations, including farming co-operatives and food processing companies. The World Bank would underwrte $200m in credit risks while JPMorgan will take on a similar amount. It is anticipated that other banks will join later. Some critics would, of course, just see this as evidence that the World Bank is hand in glove with global capitalism.

The real problem with the G20 summit is that it backed away from action on biofuels and export bans. The subsidised encouragement of biofuels has boosted food prices. Marie Brill of ActionAid said it was a shame that the G20 had ignored a clear recommendation in a commissioned report from international groups to remove subsidies and mandates for biofuels. There are, of course, powerful interests in the US in particular linked to biofuels which are seen as a means of underpinning American energy security.

On exports, a report from the World Bank and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation said that 'export subsidies by major food exporters had strong destabilising effects on international markets' and recommended that the G20 use them as a last resort.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Threat to biodiversity funds

The RSPB and Defra are concerned about a potential threat to funds paid under Pillar 2 of the CAP to support biodiversity and wildlife schemes: Biodiversity

It would be very unfortunate to say the least if savings in the CAP budget were made by capping payments that compensate for the provision of positive externalities for which there is the strongest case for public subsidy.

The bulk of any reductions should come from the SFP, although the concern here is that an attempt will be made to penalise efficient and competitive farms by capping payments. MEPs have been urged to vote against these proposals: Capping

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A risk management toolkit?

Farming as an activity is highly exposed to risk, in large part because of natural factors such as variable and unpredictable weather which are beyond the control of farmers even with modern agronomy and technology and a more knowledge intensive agriculture

As part of CAP reform the Commission has suggested the creation of a 'risk management toolkit' as part of the Rural Development Measures under Pollar 2. National governments of the member states might be given the option of choosing from a menu of options and receive co-financing from Brussels subject to an upper limit. One proposal is some kind of income safety net constructed in a way that is WTO compatible.

Stefan Tangermann is a highly respected agricultural economist who served as head of the agriculture and food division at OECD. He has produced an analytical paper on the subject of risk management and the future of the CAP: Risk management

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Justifying farm subsidies

There's been an interesting debate in the pages of the New York Times Book Review about the work of Freidrich Hayek.

Peter Dreier, a political science professor in Los Angeles, wrote in to justify some forms of government intervention. However, even he had a few problems when he came to farm subsidies.

He argues that 'during the Depression, federal agricultural subsidies saved family farms and rural jobs.' Anyone taking a social market position would accept that you have to take exceptional measures in a recession. The problem is that temporary crisis subsidies become permanent and create a set of clients who are prepared to use time and resources to lobby in their defence.

Drier admits, 'Today, a vast majority of farm subsidies go to large agribusiness conglomerates that don't need them, rather than to small family farmers.' It's an interesting question whether marginal businesses should receive some general subsidy as distinct from rewards for positive externalities such as environmental goods.

He goes on to say, 'food stamps, an indirect subsidy to farmers, clearly improve the general welfare.' However, that is the trick. By wrapping up subsidies to the poor in the farm budget, the agricultural lobby is able to win the support of Democratic urban congress members who otherwise would have no interest in maintaining farm subsidies.

It looks like there is an appetite in the House of Representatives to cut them against the background of an out-of-control federal budget deficit but it will be interesting to see what the eventual outcome is.

By the way, if you haven't seen it already, I would recommend the 'Keynes and Hayek rap': Rap . There is also a Round 2 in which JMK and 'Freddie' go toe-to-toe on the current recession.

Friday, June 10, 2011

France uses E.coli scare to boost CAP

France's agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire has used the E.Coli outbreak in Germany to defend spending on the CAP. Pointing out that 17 people had died, he commented, 'I too would like us to be able to cut the budget [Really?], but we will have to explain to consumers that we will also have to cut back the sanitary controls that are partly paid for the common agricultural policy ... at a time when we are facing a big sanitary crisis.'

Mr Le Maire, who may become finance minister of Christine Lagarde goes to the IMF, called on member states to make a 'courageous and responsible decision' in negotiations over the budget for the CAP after 2013. In other words, minimal cuts.

This really is a presposterous and obnoxious piece of shroud waving. It would be perfectly possible to decide to maintain sanitary and phytosanitary spending whilst reducing the SFP.

Who compensates farmers and to what extent for the economic consequences of the E.coli scare remains to be seen. The amount available from the CAP has been topped up, but the question is how much cash strapped member state governments can afford, not least in Spain.

The German agriculture minister does not come out of this well. First, Germany went in to 'Club Med' mode, blaming it all on poor Spanish hygiene. Subsequently they have been unable to definitively identify the source of the outbreak.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

MEPs side with Commission

MEPs on the Agriculture Committee have sided with the Commission over the question of scaling farm payments so that bigger farms receive less: Scaling .

Such an idea has always been unpalatable to Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic which have a disproportionate share of larger farms. It was rejected by the Farm Council earlier this year, but farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos has continued to favour it. It has never been clear how practical it is, given that a farming business could be constituted as single different legal entities.

The MEPs assumed that the farm budget will remain the same as it is now. The CAP has some stout defenders but in a time of austerity and with many competing uses for the available funds, it is difficult to see some cutback being avoided. The MEPs also favoured the 'greening' of the policy but it is often Pillar 2 schemes that suffer when the budget has to be cut.

Of course, cutting back payments to larger farms would give some headway in the budget, but not that much. Underlying all this is the perpetual muddle about what the priority ordering of CAP objectives is, but in practice fostering an efficient and competitive European agriculture (which is what most larger farms do) often loses out.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Disciplining agricultural support

The WTO may have rules in place to discipline domestic agricultural support, but in practice this is quite difficult given the propensity of countries to evade or fail to fully implement the rules given what they perceive as being their national interests. Three leading agricultural economists have produced a report on the subject which covers four developed countries (including the US, EU and Japan) and four developing countries (including India and China). It can be found here: Agricultural support

The report raises the question of the legitimacy of green box support which has been discussed on this page before. It notes that this has been treated as 'decoupled income support by the United States, the European Union, and China. There are large differences in the levels of such payments. The extent to which decoupled income support affects production remains uncertain but may be consequential. Limits might therefore be envisioned for this type of support to achieve a balanced set of future commitments.'

The EU has always taken the view that the SFP can be protected by putting it in the Green Box, but is always possible that this might be challenged in the WTO's Dispute Settlement Mechanism - although this would incur political costs for the country concerned.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Is a radical approach to CAP reform off the agenda?

In the latest issue of Eurochoices the editor John Davis suggests that 'Those who favour a more radical approach to policy development [in the CAP] may now be considered "outliers".' He notes that CAP reform has followed an evolutionary path, which is certainly the case, and that as a consequence the Producer Support Estimate (PSE) has been reduced from around 35 per cent in the late 1990s to about 24 per cent in 2009 which is close to the OECD average (although the US figure is 10 per cent).

Of course, in the absence of any radical impetus, we may not progress much further. Those who take a relatively radical position may help to produce compromise positions which still lead to real progress on reform.

It is interesting that elsewhere in the issue an article by David Harvey and Attila Jambor point out the flaws in the conception that Single Farm Payments should now be interpreted as payments for public goods.

They note, 'In fact, these payments derive from and largely reflect previous coupled and production related support. They are a supplement to production-related market returns, and are treated as such by farmers.' As for cross-compliance it is 'often regarded as an unnecessary and irritating condition attached to deserved support for commercial farming.'

Friday, May 06, 2011

Commission insists on transparency

The Commission has reacted to a court judgement on publishing details on farm subsidies by insisting on a commitment to transparency: Subsidies

While the judgement means that data cannot be published on 'natural persons' (individual farmers) the Commission's view is that it could and should be published about 'legal persons' (companies).

Given that many large farm businesses are constituted as companies, this could mean that taxpayers would still have access to data about the really big payouts. However, much depends on the follow up action taken by member states.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Defra no longer in charge of CAP reform

The NFU's policy director Martin Haworth thinks that UK policy on CAP reform is no longer being driven by DEFRA. Rather the Treasury and the Home Office is in charge. Their priority is seen as being to protect the British rebate rather than British agriculture. The NFU is fighting to ensure that any deal to protect the rebate does not come at the expense of agreeing to cuts in farm support.

The NFU has been forced to give up its opposition to any 'greening' of Pillar One support and has accepted that CAP reform is likely to impose further environmental conditions on subsidy payments. The emphasis now is on ensuring that any measures are fair and achievable.

The NFU clearly considers that its stance has been undermined by that of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) which has advocated ranking environmental mesures alongside food security in importance. NFU president Peter Kendall has described the CLA's stance as a 'noose around our neck' in the negotiations. It had made it easier for policy makers to argue that subsidy payments should be shifted from food production to the environment.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What impact will co-decision have on CAP reform?

In an interetsing paper presented at the Agricultural Economics Society conference at Warwick University last week, Alan Greer and Tom Hind explored the possible impact of the introduction of the co-decision on CAP decision-making and reform prospects. They proceeded by setting out four scenarios:

Scenario 1 The 'conventional' view (often put forward in the media) in which the EP gains power at the expense of other institutions (assuming that there are significant points of difference).

There are two limiting factors on the ability of the EP to exercise power. First, as the lead committee ComAGRI has had very limited experience of co-decision and it has to develop positions that can command majority support across the Parliament. If its views are too close to those of the agricultural community (and the committee is more agriculturally focused than in the past), it could be challenged in the plenary, especially on environmental issues. Second, the Parliament has limited resources relative to the other institutions: the total staff of ComAGRI is around 15, plus three seconded researchers.

Scenario 2 The Council-EP axis in which the Council of Agriculture Ministers will use its expertise to work in close partnership with the EP to shape the legislation proposed by the Commission, weakening the latter. This depends on member states being able to work closely with national MEPs and the presenters argued (rightly in my view) that this scenario was not likely to develop in the next few years.

Scenario 3 The Commission-centric scenario in which the EP's resource void is filled by the Commission. The Commission would use its expertise and resources to work with the EP, using ithe role of arbitrator to facilitate agreement between the EP against the Council in order to shape the final outcome more closely to its preferences. The paper authors thought that this was the most likely scenario. The Commission had increased its displacement as a result of enlargement.

Scenario 4 'Co-indecision'. Co-decision might actually make decision-making more difficult. An average co-decision dossier takes 36 months to process. Some participants in the audience thought that this was the most likely scenario.

If that is the case, it does not bode well for reform. But any of the scenarios is likely to make the reform process more complex, slower and less radical.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

'Greening' of CAP on its way

Both Defra and the NFU think that they have lost the battle to prevent the 'greening' of the CAP: Greening .

The NFU is concerned about the impact of the proposed measures on competitiveness, but it looks as if farmers will have to comply with environmental requirements to claim their Single Farm Payment. The NFU is consequently going to re-think its tactics on this aspect of the negotiations.

The NFU also thinks that delays in putting forward formal Commission proposals means that the start of the new policy will be delayed until January with the existing policy rolled over for one more year.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Farmers' fuel tax break under threat

The concession which provides farmers with 'red' diesel at a lower rate of duty are under threat. The diesel is coloured red so that checks can see if it is being used illegally off farm.

Draft plans by the European Commission say that current EU rules that allow member states to apply a zero rate of taxation on energy used for agricultural purposes should be repealed. The objective is to allow EU tax policy to contribute to 'green growth'.

The document argues that agriculture is one of the important sectors left out of the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme. The proposal says that a carbon tax of about £20/t should be introduced to bring agriculture in line with other sectors of the economy. It also calls for an energy consumption tax.

The news has been greeted with dismay by farming organisations at a time when oil prices have been rising. The duty rate on red diesel has increased nearly fourfold over the past decade. Farmers were paying an average of 63p a litre for red diesel in February, up from 46.9p in February 2010. This still compares very well with the price paid by hauliers and motorists.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Times have changed

As farm commissioner Franz Fischler pushed through a reform of the CAP against resistance from member states. However, in an interview with Agra Focus he indicates that in the changed environment of co-decision such a strategy is no longer feasible.

Asked whether the plans put forward by current Commissioner Dacian Ciolos went far enough, Fischler commented that the plans were rather vague and went on to say, 'I accept that under the new circumstances, under the way decisions will be made in the EU with the co-decision procedure, one cannot do what we have done in the past - that is to say come forward with a big surprise, a big reform, where everybody is against this reform at the beginning. This doesn't work anymore so one has to find a different approach and in principle I think the approach of Ciolos is the right one, but how far can you go?'

Fischler is a candidate for the post of director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization which is perhaps not as influential as it once was and needs a strong hand at the helm to revive it.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Complete Doha Round demand reform states

The prime ministers of the nine of the more reform oriented states have called on the EU to do it all it can to conclude the Doha Round in 2011 which they term a 'make or break year'. The letter, entitled Getting Europe Growing is signed by the leaders of the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, the leading lights of the traditional reform bloc. They are joined by the Baltic states, Poland and Finland. The absence of any southern member states is significant.

WTO trade rounds have been the most effective driver for reform of the CAP because they provide an exogenous pressure which helps to overcome internal obstacles. Manufacturing and service industry interests exert pressure when they see an agreement with benefits for them jeopradised by a failure to agree on agriculture. This is what happened in the concluding phase of the Uruguay Round.

Unfortunately for the hopes of reformers the political context has changed. The current administration in the US has not given a higher priority to trade policy and is preoccupied with coming up with a political deal that can provide an agreement on the budget. The political pressure for greater liberalisation that came in the past from agribusiness interests has weakened.

Even if the US and the EU could agree on the outlines of a deal they can no longer impose it on the other participants with some side payments. Emerging countries have become powerful players and while liberalisation suits Brazil's interests, India and China want to protect their peasant populations.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Plans to cap big farm subsidies lack support

Plans to limit subsidies paid to big farms under the Common Agricultural Policy have won insufficient support in the Council of Farm Ministers: Big farms

The farm commissioner thought that the proposals would be popular with taxpayers. Possibly so, but they have always been opposed by UK and Germany, the countries with the largest number of big farms.

The CAP is supposed to be, among other things, about the international competitiveness of EU agriculture, although in practice more attention is given to propping up marginal farmers. Large-scale farms tend to be more efficient and competitive, so if there are to be subsidies, they should receive them on the same basis as everyone else.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Setback for reform

Those wanting reform of the CAP have suffered a setback after 20 member states signed a declaration opposing radical reform of the policy: Reform . France was particularly pleased that Poland and Romania signed up given that accession states have been pressing for an eastward redistribution of funds.

The countries that refused to sign up were the reform camp of the UK, Denmark and Sweden; the three Baltic states (hardly big recipients of largesse); and Greece (which may have to do something with the current austerity package).

Although the UK acknowledged that the declaration was a setback in hopes for reform, budgetary pressures may yet have an impact on the final package.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Inside the CAP reform process

A major new analysis of the CAP reform process, An Inside View of the CAP Reform Process by Arlindo Cunha with Alan Swinbank has been published by Oxford University Press. Cunha was Portugal's Minister of Agriculture during the negotiation of the MacSharry reforms and was involved in the Fischler reforms as a member of the European Parliament. Swinbank is one of the UK's most distinguished agricultural economists and has written extensively on CAP reform.

The books explains how the 'old' CAP became no longer fit for purpose, deals with the structure and functioning of CAP decision-making, examines the 1992, 1999 and 2003 reform and also the Health Check and includes the results of a Delphi survey of some of the key players in the reform process.

The analysis suggests that the series of reforms 'was initiated by the Commission, with a particularly important role played by the commissioner, with the Commission playing its cards as an agenda setter at a time when internal and external forces were pressing for policy change.' There is much talk these days of the relative weakening of the Commission in the EU policy process and one wonders how far it will be able to play this kind of role in the future.

It is noted that the Commission has not been as successful in developing rural development as the second pillar of the CAP as Commissioner Fischler would have liked, but the decoupling of support has been relentlessly pursued. Of course, one might add that it has made the CAP more respectable.

However, much has not changed. It is noted that that the CAP still pre-empts a large share of the EU budget and that support is very unevenly spread both between and within member states. Larger farms receive higher payments and payments reflect past production structures.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Lords committee calls for radical CAP reform

The House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has called for radical reform of the CAP: Lords . Direct payments should be phased out. The Committee welcomes proposals to 'green' Pillar 1.

The committee argues that innovation should be a central part of the whole reform agenda. This would unlock agricultural productivity which has been relatively static. High quality agricultural research and development, and its transfer to practitioners, are key to the future of EU agriculture. To boost funding, it should be possible to transfer money from the CAP to the research budget to fund Framework programmes.

The Committee calls for vastly improved farm advisory services so that farmers have better access to high quality impartial advice on possible innovative approaches. Unfortunately, publicly provided arrangements were dismantled a long time ago and it is difficult to see how they could be restored. Possibly private providers such as agronomists could undertake public policy work on a contract basis.

The report seems to reflect good sense, but there have been so many of these reports over the years and nothing much really seems to change as a result.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Financial speculation and volatile prices

There has been increasing discussion recently about the link between financial markets such as those dealing with futures and derivatives and volatlity in farm prices. The subject has been highly contested and there is no consensus view.

This viewed is shared in a leaked draft of a Commission communication which concludes that there is no conclusive evidence on the causality between activity in derivatives markets increased volatility & price increases in the underlying physical markets.

The draft version suggests unsurprisingly that agricultural commodity prices are expected to stay higher than their historical averages reversing their long-term downward trend, with producer margins increasingly squeezed due to higher costs.

Similarly price volatility is expected to remain high, although 'uncertainties with respect to its causes and duration persist'. Referring to the ‘CAP Towards 2020’, it notes that food security has been identified as one of the main drivers for future reform in EU policy, underlining that a 'strong agricultural sector is vital for the highly competitive food industry to remain an important part of the EU economy and trade and a major contributor to international markets'.

Commenting yesterday on a decision to defer its publication, the Commission spokesperson outlined that there is 'no doubt about the links between the physical & financial markets', but that there is a 'need for more time to look at the specifics at play between the financial markets and markets that are not closely regulated' such as Over-the-Counter (OTC) derivatives. The Commission now intends to 'refine the analysis' on the reasons why markets fluctuate and seek greater clarity on the interaction between speculation and markets.

Friday, January 28, 2011

It's all in the green box

The EU has done a good job of stuffing its CAP subsidies into the green box category which is supposedly free of distortions to international trade, this latest report from ICTSD shows: Green Box

Production-linked subsidies hit a new 'low' of €12.3bn, whereas green box subsidies such as the Single Farm Payment amounted to a new high of €62.6bn. That makes a total of €74.9bn and it is worth reflecting on the opportunity cost of that amount of spending.

As one comment on the report points out, what really distorts global trade are the EU's high tariff barriers, particularly in relation to so-called 'sensitive' products. Should the Doha Round resume, this is an area in which agreement will be needed.

Of course, there are questions about whether subsidies placed in the green box are really free of distortions to international trade and this could be tested in the quasi-judicial WTO dispute settlement mechanism at some point in the future.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The subsidies dilemma

A farmer writing to Farmers Weekly says of Caroline Spelman's support for phasing out the Single Farm Payment, 'Surely she must realise the subsidy keeps most farmers in business?'

The correctness of this view in the short term, for livestock farmers at any rate, was confirmed by HSBC's head of agriculture Allan Wilkinson who said that livestock and dairy enterprises are likely to be even more reliant on subsidy payments to make a profit this year.

He told Farmers Weekly that while arable producers will benefit from the dramatic upturn in commodity markets, relatively static meat and milk prices, combined with big increases in feed costs, will put margins for beef, sheep and dairy producers under significant pressure.

Part of the answer is, of course, not subsidies but the response of the individual farm business to admittedly difficult market conditions. Mr Wilkinson acknowledged that output and costs varied significantly and that top-performing producers and those who had managed to secure higher end prices or cheaper inputs would fare better.

He commented, 'It's clear that volatility is here to stay and the successful busineses will be those that devote more effort to marketing strategies, in conjunction with a continued focus on technical efficiency and lowering production costs.' In other words, farmers have to get smarter.

Subsidies may not help them to get smarter. With Simon Marsh of Harper Adams University College, Farmers Weekly is following the month-by-month progress of an upland suckler herd that's consistently performing in the top 1 per cent of all costed herds. Mr Marsh commented, 'For too long, the UK beef industry has relied on support payments and it has stifled incentive to strive for efficient production.'

I was recently talking to a journalist from an esteemed weekly who has written on the CAP. He commented that when prices were low, the French (as the main defenders of the CAP) said that subsidies were needed to boost farm incomes. When prices were high or volatile, they were needed to ensure food security. He once asked a French minister if there were then any conceivable market circumstances in which an argument could not be produced in favour of subsidies.

We do not start with a blank sheet of paper and a sudden withdrawal of subsidies would seriously disrupt the market. But we should be starting down that road. Many farmers would be happier getting their return from their market without all the transaction costs of filling in forms to claim subsidies and the hazard that you may be denied part or all of your entitlement because of an inadvertent error.

What is more the UK is facing up to £1bn of fines from the EU in large part because of incompetent handling of Single Farm Payments (some £664m appears to relate to Defra). This was described in 2009 by the Commons Public Accounts Committee as a 'singular example of comprehensively poor administration on a grand scale.' Britain has now joined Italy and Greece among the worse offenders on farm funding

Monday, January 24, 2011

Global farming food and future report out

An important report led by the Governnment's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, setting out the challenges facing farming and food supply on a global basis is now available: Farming Future You can hear a Radio 4 discussion on the topic here: Beddington

This should provide a basis for a serious discussion about how agricultural productivity can be raised whilst coping with the challenge of climate change and other environmental considerations such as the maintenance of biodiversity.

Land is a finite resource, indeed its availability is diminishing because of urbanisation and the effects of climate change. Farming and food is very dependent on oil at various stages of the food chain, while the availability of water is an increasing constraint.

In the longer run support for the farming industry should not come through blanket subsidies but by, for example, ensuring that there is an adequate research structure that is oriented towards devising practical solutions towards the resolution of pressing problems.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Buoyant market for SFP entitlements

The market for SFP entitlements appears to be buoyant. Buyers far outnumber sellers which naturally tends to push up prices. George Paton of WebbPaton told Farmers Weekly that they had a requirement for 2400ha on their waiting list.

The confiscation of entitlements under tighter usage rules has had the effect of reducing the number of 'spare' entitlements. There are also more buyers about, some of them finally getting round to buying entitlements for land that missed out on the original allocation in 2005.

English flat-rate entitlements of €241/ha are currently worth around £205/ha, which is close to the level they can be expected to pay out in 2011, assuming exchange rates remain similar to current levels (when the pound fell against the euro it pushed up the value of payments received by farmers in sterling.) Entitlements for Severely Disadvantaged Areas and Moorland Areas are once again in particularly short supply and are fetching up to twice their annual face value.

Ideally one would not pay general subsidies of this kind to farmers at all. However, if one does have them, there is an argument for having a secondary market to re-allocate them more efficiently to those who think they need them most.

In a sense those who buy and sell in this market are taking a bet on the sterling/euro exchange rate. Of course, this not only affects the sterling value of the SFP, but also key input prices which have been rising substantially recently. 'Red' diesel for use on farms is taxed at a lower rate than diesel bought for normal domestic or business use, but its price has been pushed up substantially recently by rising world oil prices.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ciolos lays it on the line

Dacian Ciolos has emerged as a more authoritative and decisive farm commissioner than many expected. Whether his line is the correct one is another matter. But the grumpy old man of British farming, Farmers Weekly correspondent David Richardson writes of his appearance at the Oxford Farming Conference, 'he had comprehensively mastered his brief and, when questioned, actually answered as fully and frankly as any politician I have known.'

The content of his message is perhaps less welcome. It's clear that he sees his job as being to change the CAP but also to defend its essential elements. I do, however, welcome the news that research and development may be included in pillar two. The food chain needs more publicy funded, applied research which can help to tackle pressing policy problems and on farm challenges. This has been cut back drastically over the years.

It is evident that the Commissioner thinks that part of the price of defending the CAP is capping subsidies to larger farmers. He is clearly influenced by his Romanian experience where it has been possible for farmers with very large farms (presumably in some cases former collective farms) to use the income from subsidies to start other businesses. This is evidently resented in Romania where there are also many small (and by European standards) relatively backward farms.

Ciolos argues that in some parts of Europe the choice is small farms or no agricultural activity at all. It may be that in some of these areas agricultural activity is not really viable and the land should be farmed as an ecological asset to maximise environmental benefits.

Ciolos argues that it's very difficult to explain how giving €2m to one individual or company is 'income support'. If the CAP really is income support, it's an inefficient way of delivering it.

What is continually overlooked with the CAP is the international competitiveness dimension which is supposed to form part of the policy. Large-scale farmers tend to farm to a high standard (including animal welfare standards), are highly competitive and also are often substantially involved in agri-environmental work.

If you cut off aid to them, you are penalising them for being more efficient. In any case there would be all sorts of legal problems over the definition of a farm business.

Ciolos evidently sees the CAP as more justifiable as a mechanism for the transfer of funds from taxpayers and consumers to marginal farmers. It is actually not an efficient way of helping them or the environment, it doesn't do much for food security (given that their output is low) and it doesn't help the EU food industry to become more competitive.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Spelman hits raw nerve with Ciolos

The speech by Defra secretary of state Caroline Spelman has clearly hit a raw nerve with farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos: Ciolos

In essence what Ciolos is saying is that this was a speech made for domestic consumption, but it will cut no ice in Europe. Depressingly, he is probably right, but the secretary of state was still right to set out her stall. She may be able to have some impact on the details of any deal, particularly when the budget dimension is brought into play.

Once again food shortages and volatile prices are in the news. If nothing else, this is a case for doing something about the high tariff barriers which surround the EU in the food area, particularly on so-called 'sensitive' products. If developing countries could get more access to developed markets, they would be incentivised to move towards more commercial agricultures which would feed more people both at home and abroad.

There are, of course, a lot of complex issues here and there are undoubtedly some areas of the world where improving semi-subsistence agriculture is the best way forward. But no one is going to become genuinely prosperous that way.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The big politics behind the CAP deal

Why was Dave Cameron willing to do a deal with France and Germany on CAP subsidies given that he is genuinely an Eurosceptic? This article (which was easy to miss as it came out on Boxing Day) explains the big politics behind the deal and opens with some amusing remarks about CAP subsidies: CAP deal

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Call for fundamental CAP reform

In a major speech at the Oxford conference, secretary of state Caroline Spelman has called for a more ambitious approach to CAP reform and a fundamental change in the nature of the CAP: Spelman

She's talking the talk like former secretaries of state, but walking the walk is always more difficult. Only in very special circumstances has it been possible to build anything like a winning coalition for reform. Current thinking reinforces the trend towards protectionism she rightly criticises.