Thursday, December 20, 2012

'Could do better' is end of term report

As 2012 draws to a close and the Cypriot EU Presidency concludes, agriculture ministers and MEPs across the 27 member states took time this week to reflect on how CAP reform negotiations have gone over the past six months.

Agra Europe reports that there was a general feeling of satisfaction that significant progress has been made but also the admission that much work still needs to be done in the coming six months under the Irish Presidency.

On Tuesday, ComAgri announced that from the near 8 000 amendments to the European Commission’s CAP reform proposals sought by member states, the total has now been whittled down to just 100 compromise agreements, which will be voted on in January. A final vote will only take place once the EU’s next long-term budget has been agreed (likely to be early February, 2013).

The outgoing Cypriot Presidency released its progress report on its six months in charge of CAP reform, praising the 'positive spirit' of the negotiations over the period, but observers would still probably come away with a nagging feeling of ‘must try harder’.

As Irish farm minister Simon Coveney reiterated, 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,' admitting it would be a 'big ask' to get a CAP deal by June, which is widely seen as the deadline if parts of the new policy will be ready for 2014.

Many ministers were openly frustrated at the lack of progress on the EU’s 2014-2020 budget, which is undoubtedly the major hurdle for the reform of the CAP. Of course, the amount spend on the CAP is a hurdle in the way of a budget agreement in the eyes of some member states, not least the UK. Beyond that there are still obviously problems to be ironed out with the ‘greening’ element of the proposals as well as questions about the plan for the internal convergence of direct payments. What that means is that some get more, but perhaps not as much as they hoped for, and others get less. That's never an easy balance to draw.

Friday, December 14, 2012

France determined to defend CAP budget

The EU budget for 2013 was finally signed off this week after the European Parliament approved a compromise agreement between member states that will give the CAP slightly less next year than was originally proposed by the European Commission, reports Agra Europe

CAP payments for 2013 will total €56.44 billion, a marginal increase from the current year but €350 million lower than what the Commission asked for. This leaves the Pillar One direct aid and market-related payment kitty at €43.93bn, up 0.13 per cent from this year, with the Pillar Two rural development budget set at €12.5bn - 3.38 per cent greater than in 2012.

On the subject of the next long term budget, France set out its stall against any cuts to the CAP budget for 2014-2020 and called for greater reductions from elsewhere in order to appease countries such as Sweden and the UK, who are fighting for greater reductions than are currently on the table. If the CAP is left inviolate, this would mean quite substantial cuts elsewhere, in particular in programmes that might do more to stimulate the growth of the European economy than the CAP.

As the biggest recipient of CAP funding within the EU, France is determined to pull back further funds into the agricultural budget after European Council President Herman Van Rompuy proposed a less drastic reduction of €17bn at the EU budget talks, softening on the €25bn he had earlier proposed.

But 'several billion' euros will still need to be restored to the budget if it is to satisfy France, the country’s European Affairs minister Bernard Cazeneuve told journalists at a European Parliament plenary session this week. But no specific amount to be recovered for the CAP is being aimed for, a spokesperson for the French Agriculture Ministry told Agra Europe.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Top official admits CAP deal will be delayed

A senior European Commission official let slip this week that the Brussels establishment is now preparing for the likelihood that reform of CAP Pillar One will be delayed until 2015, as time is running out on reaching a political agreement in time for the start of 2014, reports Agra Europe.

Gwilyn Jones, a member of EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos’ cabinet, is perhaps the first official to publicly say what many analysts have been thinking for a while now – that positions on this particular part of the CAP are too far apart for an agreement to be reached in the near term.

With the fairly radical overhaul of the Pillar One direct payment scheme proposed by the Commission and the subsequent debate on issues such as the convergence of payments and ‘greening’, it was always likely that this particular part of the CAP would divide member states.

However, the crux of the matter is still almost certainly the failure to conclude talks on the EU’s next long term budget – the multiannual financial framework (MFF) for 2014-2020. MEPs have made it clear they are not prepared to make any decisions on the CAP until they know how much money they have to work with.

Now that a MFF agreement is not likely to happen until late January at the earliest – when the talks will resume – it puts added pressure on efforts to reach a compromise deal and put the relevant measures in place in time for January 1, 2014.

Agra Europe's Chris Horseman believes that an agreement on CAP reform was not likely to happen before next summer at the earliest - but it would appear that even this deadline will now not be met.

So what now? Ciolos has made clear that he is still aiming for an agreement to be made in time for 2014 but has also mooted the idea of a “transitional year” taking us to 2015.

It is unlikely, however, that Pillar One in this transitional year will look any different to how it does now. The exact same structure for CAP direct payments would have to remain, provisionally, in place. The only difference is that if in the meantime agreement is reached on an MFF deal that will see the CAP budget trimmed, there will be less money available from 2014.

The assumption would be that the existing single farm payment scheme would ‘roll forward’ but with a cut in the budget of the order of 2-3% - and under the Financial Discipline Mechanism rules that would translate automatically into a proportional cut in each farmer’s direct aid payment cheque in 2014. This is a scenario which is unlikely to satisfy anyone, but such an outcome is all too familiar with the CAP.

There is more optimism that a common position on Pillar Two – rural development – can be reached in time for 2014, as was expressed at the recent Farm Council. How this could sit with a Pillar One framework that maintains the status quo will be something for MEPs and domestic ministers to ponder as they enter the Christmas and New Year break.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Progress towards a European food model?

This paper reports on an Austrian workshop that sought to review progress towards a European food model: Food model

The construction of such a model has been an aspiration of the EU since the Fischler reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy. It sought to replace an earlier crude productionist model that emphasised the quantity of production with one that put the consumer at the centre of the model with an emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Implicit in this approach was a contrast with an American model which still adhered to a more Fordist model of homogeneous mass production. The interests of the farmer were still served because high value added production offered the prospect of better margins per unit of production.

The flaw in this model was that, although niche production had flourished as consumers had become wealthier and more discerning, a lot of European agriculture was still dependent on price-sensitive commodity production. An era of austerity has reinforced consumer behaviour in which price is the dominant consideration.

The Austrian paper takes sustainability as an unifying principle and considers the relationship between a number of dimensions such as food safety, food quality, regionality, diversity and value and appreciation of food.

From a British perspective there is an interesting absence of any reference to animal welfare. Indeed, it is claimed that conservation is promoted by 'bringing rare species and endangered animal breeds back on the table of consumers.' In other words, one eats that which is conserved.

Nevertheless, this paper is an interesting contribution to a continuing debate: what, if anything, is distinctive about European agriculture and how can the CAP best serve it?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Trade-distorting subsidies fall

Trade-distorting farm subsidies in the EU fell in the last year for which figures are available (2009-10) to a mere €15.5bn. This puts them well within limits proposed in the Doha Round: Trade

The same source contains a useful summary of the agricultural dimension of the recent EU budget negotiations: Budget

Irish farmers have been worried enough by the threat to farm subsidies to occupy Commission offices in Dublin: Protest

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Auditors criticise SAPS scheme

A scheme designed to support farmers' income in the accession states is riddled with flaws. Among the unintended beneficiaries have been ski clubs, hunting associations and real estate companies.

The European Court of Auditors has published its first special report (SR16/2012) on income support paid to farmers in the new Member States. It is calling for reform to ensure that income support be directed to the active farmer who conducts concrete and regular agricultural activities. In particular, public entities managing state land and not otherwise involved in farming should be excluded from EU farm support and no payments should be made in relation to unutilized land or land which is mainly devoted to non-agricultural activities.

The Single Area Payment Scheme (SAPS) was designed to enable the new Member States who joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, to support farmers’ income. It is currently applied in 10 EU Member States and the related expenditure amounted to 5 billion euro in 2011. The Court’s report focuses on the beneficiaries of the policy, on eligible land and on the contribution of the scheme to the objective of supporting farmers’ income.

The overall conclusion of the audit is that the implementation of the scheme resulted in a number of questionable features:

  • The definition of the beneficiaries of the scheme is inadequate: it permits payments to be made to beneficiaries not engaged in agricultural activity, or only marginally so. Cases in point include real estate companies, airports, hunting associations, fishing and ski clubs.
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  • In addition, in some of the countries concerned, aid was legally paid to (and supported the income of) public entities managing state land but not otherwise involved in farming. The state is the largest beneficiary of SAPS payments in Hungary (14 million euro in 2010 for 82000 ha of land).
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  • The total agricultural area in relation to which SAPS should be paid was not reliably determined by the Member States but accepted by the Commission. This influenced the amount of aid per hectare paid to each farmer which was sometimes higher or lower as it should have been. Some countries revised the total agricultural areas without proper justification. This allowed them to fully use their respective financial envelope.
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  • In spite of efforts made by the Member States concerned, aid was paid for parcels where no agricultural activity was carried out.
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  • There is an inherent contradiction in the design of SAPS aid: it is, on the one hand, intended to support the individual income of farmers, but on the other hand, the aid is distributed to farms based on the area of parcels of land at their disposal.
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  • SAPS primarily benefits large farms: overall, 0.2% of the beneficiaries receive more than 100000 € representing 24% of the total value of payments.
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  • Finally, even though SAPS was designed as a transitional scheme, most Member States have not prepared for the introduction (foreseen in 2014) of the system (based on payment entitlements) which is already in place in EU-15 Member States. This may result in significant delays in payments in the future.

The Court recommends a better targeted and results oriented policy whereby support to farmers’ income should be directed to the active farmer who conducts concrete and regular agricultural activities and should exclude public entities. The eligibility of land for aid should be clearly defined and limited to parcels on which concrete and regular agricultural activities are required. A more balanced distribution of aid between farmers should be sought either by capping higher individual payments or by taking into consideration the specific circumstances of the farms in the different regions. The Commission should address the structural weaknesses in the farm sector and actively support the Member States and more closely monitor their preparations for the introduction of a future entitlement-based scheme.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Could European young farmers become extinct?

The number of young farmers in Europe today is falling fast. We have reached a point where only 6 per cent of farmers across the European Union are under the age of 35. The situation is even worse in members states like Italy, Portugal and the United Kingdom, where the young represent less than 3 per cent of the entire farming community. This state of affairs is reaching breaking point, with five times as many farmers over the age of 65 than there are farmers under the age of 35 – this cannot continue for long.

With so little influx of youth into European agriculture, the sector could soon lose much of its competitiveness on a global market. Young farmers' representatives consider that nothing less than future food security and the vitality of rural areas across Europe is at risk. If nothing is done about the significant lack of generational renewal in the sector, European food production will be hit particularly hard as many elderly farmers retire. This is an aspect of food security that has been very much neglected.

With the Common Agricultural Policy currently being reformed for 2014-2020, there is a window of opportunity to counteract these developments and to prioritise this key age group in EU agricultural policy. If action isn’t taken now, European agriculture will not be able to face present and future challenges such as increased environmental protection, job creation, biodiversity conservation and above all, food security.

In order to raise awareness of this issue among the general public and policymakers alike, CEJA – the European Council of Young Farmers – has recently launched a campaign entitled “Future Food Farmers” which I am happy to endorse. With the support of European Commissioners, MEPs and key stakeholders in the sector, CEJA aims to reverse the negative demographic trend that is common to all Member States of the European Union and help young farmers to secure the future of European agriculture.

Everyone can express their support for the cause by taking the campaign’s online pledge, and join public figures like the President of the EESC Staffan Nilsson, Commissioners Dacian Cioloş, Janusz Lewandowski and Janez Potočnik, as well as MEPs Paolo De Castro, Luis Manuel Capoulas Santos and George Lyon in their efforts to keep EU agriculture alive. The online pledge is here: Pledge

The campaign video can be viewed here: Young farmers

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Grey mouse rocks France

EU Council president Herman van Rompuy has proposed an EU budget that is €20bn less than the current EU budget and at least €75bn less than the European Commission's original proosal. It focuses cuts on agricultural spending including a €13.2bn reduction in farm subsidies which drew a furious response from France. It does also plan to cut the UK rebate of €3.5bn.

There is also a row going on about cohesion funds. The Friends of Cohesion constitute a group of 14 member states from central and eastern Europe, with some from Southern Europe. They face a group of member states known as the Friends of Better Spending, but there are only seven of them (Austria, Germany, Finland, France, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden. Another name could be the 'group of net contributors': Better Spending .

Not all of those seven would sign up to a significant reduction in farm spending. Indeed, one could only rely on the Netherlands and Sweden.

Van Rompuy's proposals would mean €13.2bn less for Pillar One (P1) and €8.3bn less for Pillar Two (P2) for the 2014-2020 period than wanted by the European Commission in its initial CAP reform proposals. The cut is three times greater than the €6.8bn the Cypriot Presidency had suggested trimming off earlier this month, proposals which themselves caused a big storm.

The Cypriot plan would have seen €50bn cut from the overall EU budget, but Van Rompuy’s proposal would double that figure to nearly €100bn. Under the Council President’s plan, spending on P1 direct aid payments and market tools over the seven years would go from the €283.05bn tabled by the EU executive down to a maximum of €269.85bn, nearly 4.7% less. The CAP would bear the brunt of further cutbacks as a planned 'Crisis Reserve' to fund emergency measures - for which the EU executive had earmarked €3.5bn - would also be included under P1.

The P2 budget for co-financing national rural development programmes should go from €91.97bn to €83.67bn, around 9% less, Van Rompuy said. The Commission proposal for P2 already involves a 10% cut in real terms from 2013 to 2020, so a further €8.3bn reduction could mean some member states seeing their rural development envelope cut by more than 20% in real terms. Potentially, at least, this form of spending can be more socially useful than Pillar 1.

Somewhat predictably, EU Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos responded that the suggestion 'goes against efforts to make the CAP fairer, greener and more efficient'. He also said that this was the 'first step away from a common agricultural policy' and that it could set the CAP budget 'back 30 years'.

With the crunch talks on the multiannual financial framework set for next week (November 22-23), one interpretation is that the Council President has decided that some appeasement of the net contributing states is needed to ensure that the summit is not ‘dead on arrival’ and that progress can be made.

Meanwhile, Agra Europe analyst Brian Gardner has suggested a way to knock around 25% off the EU budget for 2014-20 in his latest comment article – reduce the size of the CAP budget by 75%.

He argues that with the strong likelihood that crop prices will remain at historically high prices in the years to come, largely due to increasing demand, the EU can afford to only provide subsidies to those farmers who really need it.

The EU's most efficient cereal growers in France, Germany and the UK, for example, with average yields of above eight tonnes per hectare, can make adequate profits without receiving EU income subsidies, he argues.

Monday, November 12, 2012

US-EU trade pact could be sunk by farm wars

Following the US elections, EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht has sought to revitalise talks on a comprehensive bilateral trade deal between Europe and the EU. It reflects a growing recognition that nothing is going to come out of the Doha Round.

However, there is a long history of 'farm wars' between the EU and the US on everything ranging from chickens through pasta to beef hormones. The dispute on GM crops has been particularly troublesome as it is a subject of concern to many EU citizens.

The EU would like to eliminate agricultural tariffs as part of any deal, but Mr De Gucht admitted, 'Access to our agricultural markets will be one of the bones of contention.'

Although US trade supremeo Ron Kirk appears to take the idea seriously, and it has the backing of business interests in the States, it is less clear whether it has the high level political backing necessary for success. President Obama is not known for his interest in relations with Europe and did not give a lot of impetus to trade policy in his first term.


Friday, November 09, 2012

Parliament delays CAP reform process

The decision by the European Parliament’s agriculture committee (ComAgri) to delay a vote on laying out its official position on CAP reform until the beginning of next year once again brings into question whether an agreement can be made in time for the new policy to be implemented by the start of 2014. Indeed, for some time I have thought this very unlikely.

Although an official date for the vote was never set, it was generally considered that one would need to take place either this month or next in order for the Farm Council to have enough time to reach a consensus on its own reform package, and then for ‘trilogue’ talks to be held between EU institutions that will finally result in an agreement for the 2014-2020 CAP budget, reports Agra Europe.

MEPs have made it clear that they will not be pushed into approving the next CAP until the EU’s next long term budget is in place and the generally negative feedback from the Cypriot Presidency’s recent proposal to shave €7 billion off the bloc’s multiannual financial framework (MFF) for 2014-2020 is not an encouraging sign that heads of state will come to a firm agreement by the end of the crunch summit on November 22-23.

Those calling for a freeze or cut in real terms to the EU budget will have seized on the recent European Court of Auditors report, which again found that large sums of budget funds in 2011 were misspent, with rural development spending coming in for particular criticism. This is likely to increase the vulnerability of this form of expenditure to cutbacks given the importance of the single farm payments to the revenue streams of most farmers.

With austerity biting across the EU, and distrust in the institutions growing among the electorate, particularly in the UK, it must now be time for the European Commission to push through improved measures of accountability and transparency on how funds are being spent.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Nicosia gets the thumbs down from all sides

It isn't easy being a small state and holding the presidency of the EU, especially when you have to make proposals about the future of the CAP. Cyprus has ended up being attacked from all sides for its suggestions for a way forward on the CAP budget.

The Cypriot EU Presidency’s proposal to cut EU spending by €50 billion as compared with the Commission’s original proposal in the 2014-2020 period, including a €7bn reduction to the CAP budget, has been categorically dismissed by those on both sides of the budget debate – those who want to see an increase, and those pressing for bigger cuts, reports Agra Europe.

Nicosia has suggested reducing spending on CAP direct aid payments and market measures over the seven years from the €283.05bn tabled by the Commission to a maximum of €277.40bn, a cut of just over 2%. The Presidency also suggested reducing the EU average level of direct payments per hectare by at least 0.27% a year between 2015 and 2020, which would trim the proposed overall expenditure on direct payments in 2014-2020 by 1.3%.

The EU's rural development budget - used to co-finance national programmes - would go from €91.97 to €90.82bn, a 1.3% cut, under the Presidency's revised version of the 'negotiating box' for the multiannual financial framework (MFF). My hunch is that, unfortunately, this is where the brunt of the cuts will eventually fall. It only benefits some farmers and there are transaction costs in accessing it.

France has threatened to veto any deal that will result in a cut to the budget for agriculture, with farming groups across the continent calling for nothing less drastic than a CAP budget freeze. The European Parliament, which has also called for a freezing of the CAP budget, slammed the Cyprus Presidency's plan and claimed its voice has not been heard.

The proposal 'sends out a bad signal' and 'will inevitably put in jeopardy the future of certain key policies and programmes,' according to the Parliament's lead negotiators Reimer Boege and Ivailo Kalfin.

France and Germany recently backed the European Commission’s proposals to freeze the 2014-2020 CAP budget at 2013 levels in nominal terms – a reduction in real terms - and have subsequently found support from some of the usual suspects: Spain, Italy and Ireland among others.

On the other side of the debate, the old reformist coalition of the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands are pushing for cutbacks across all areas, including the CAP. This week the UK government, again backed by Sweden, argued that the Presidency proposals for a €50bn cut to EU spending 'don't go far enough' and that the figures are 'still way too high'.

Essentially Europe is split between, on the one hand, those 10 net payers to the EU budget, such as the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, who put more into the kitty than they get out, and on the other the 17 net recipient member states who mostly want to see an increase of at least five per cent. For all the talk of solidarity, it comes down to what you pay in and what you get out.

The net payers cannot justify an increase as it runs contrary to what they see as the severe economic reality currently gripping Europe. But the net recipients argue that growth and development across the bloc will be severely hampered unless struggling countries get the additional help they need. That may be so, but giving that help to agriculture is not the best way to boost growth and employment.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

It's not all Balls

The ploy by Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander to call for Dave Cameron to secure real cuts in the EU budget is a way of setting an elephant trap for the prime minister. They know if they were in office they would have great difficulty in securing such cuts given the stance of other member states. But it will give them another chance to score a few political points by portraying the Government as weak and incompetent, as well as increasing disarray on the Conservative benches.

So it's a smart tactical move. But once we get away from the partisan point scoring, they do have something interesting and important to say in their Times article. They point out that for all the fuss about Brussels bureaucrats, administration only takes up 6 per cent of the EU budget. £45 billion is sucked up by the CAP at a net cost to the UK of £1 billion a year (although we do get a budget rebate).

They argue, 'Although the butter mountains of the past are long gone, the need for reform is no less urgent. The CAP is an obstacle to international trade liberalisation, creates too few jobs and introduces distortions so that there is not a level playing field. The EU cannot afford this waste.'

They maintain. 'further reform of the CAP must not just be discussed but implemented.' If only. I think there will be some real cuts, but they will be mainly at expense of Pillar 2 expenditure which helps the environment and the rural economy. The blanket subsidies of Pillar 1 (the Single Farm Payment) will remain largely untouched.

There are a number of net beneficiaries of the CAP who will defend it to the last hedge row. But there is more to it than that. France gets less than it used to from the CAP, but for the French it is more than a question of the financial benefits, important though those are. It is also about a vision of Europe in which agriculture plays a central if often symbolic role. It is about a statist mode of government in which intervention in the market is seen as beneficial in the name of food security. Even though some are questioning whether France can continue to afford to allow 56 per cent of its GDP to be spent by the government, those attitudes are not going to change any time soon.

Interesting that Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, thinks that Britain should contemplate leaving the EU: Stuart . Admittedly, she has been moving in a Eurosceptic direction for eight years or so and is now something of a maverick on the Labour benches. But she was born in Germany and is a particularly thoughtful MP. What she says needs to be taken seriously.

Where her argument is perhaps weakest is in relation to the possibility of a two-tier EU, although I think she is correct in her judgment that a negotiation would not deliver that much in terms of a repatriation of powers (certainly not an exit from the CAP). This is not one of the usual supspects and it may be an early indication of a real shift in the political climate.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Oil seed rape loses its glow

Fewer oil seed rape fields may be seen in Britain following adjustments to EU policy. It's quite a complex story, but there are two big lessons to be learnt from it. First, individual planting decisions on farms are directly affected by the EU policy (although there are agronomic advantage to oil seed rape - known as canola in North America - as a break crop). Second, well-intended environmental interventions may have unforeseen consequences that cancel out the advantages it was hoped that would be gained (although we are in contested territory here).

Back in 2008 it was agreed by the EU that as part of the effort to combat global warming, each member state should derive at least 10 per cent of their transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020. However, since then there has been renewed concern about global food shortages. Biodiesels are only one and by no means the most important factor in such shortages: but their use can be influenced by policy decisions. Environmental groups have also argued that the EU policy encourages farmers in countries such as Indonesia to cut down forests that act as carbon sinks to grow crops for use as fuel in Europe, thus making global warming worse.

The canary yellow fields are a major feature of the summer landscape in Britain and have even become a niche attraction for Japanese tourists. They also contribute to biodiversity as the flowers are favoured by pollinating bees and birds nest in the stems.

UK rapeseed production rose 70 per cent in the decade to 2011, amounting to roughly 40 per cent of the land planted with wheat. Roughly one-fifth of British rapeseed oil production goes into biodiesel. Farmers are now likely to switch into wheat which, of course, is in a sense the intention of the policy modification.

There is, however, fierce resistance from the biodiesel industry to the draft proposals who are crying foul. They invested heavily in refining capacity based on the 2008 rule change.

The Commission has, in fact, watered down its original proposals, but has only succeeded in upsetting both camps. Environmentalists claim that the proposals do not go far enough, the industry that they go too far.

Some of this is very technical, but food crop-based biofuels are still to be banned from contributing more than 5 per cent of transport fuel consumed in the EU. 'We are sending a clear signal that future increases in biofuels must come from advanced biofuels. Everything else will be unsustainable,' said EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard when unveiling the proposal in Brussels.'

Rob Vierhout, secretary general of advanced biofuel producers ePure went as far as to claim the Commission is 'NGO-driven' but there was little evidence that there was a great deal of satisfaction from that side either. 'If this proposal becomes law, biofuels more damaging to the climate than crude oil will still be used to meet green transport targets,' Greenpeace’s EU transport policy director Franziska Achterberg claimed.

Anti-poverty charity ActionAid called the proposed 5 per cent biofuels limit on food-based biofuels an 'important symbolic first step,' but called for a total ban on food and land-based fuels and fired back at the biofuels sector by accusing the Commission of buckling to industry pressure by taking the 'heart out of the proposal'. The Institute for European Environmental Policy was similarly scathing about what it saw as a Commission climbdown on in the face of industry pressure while welcoming the biofuel cap

Perhaps what one can say is that government interventions of this kind, however well intentioned, are always fraught with the risk of going wrong and end up displeasing everyone. One of the commentators on the industry side said that if the Commission pursued their line they might as well scrap the CAP. Be careful what you wish for.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Are UKIP wrong about the CAP?

Stuart Agnew MEP, the UKIP agricultural spokesman, has said the EU 'has become far too big to have a CAP.' There are certainly those who think that the EU is too geographically diverse to have a 'one size fits all' policy, although in practice it is not really like that. He also criticised farmers who receive subsidies for wind turbines and solar panels on their land as 'robbing the poor to pay the rich.'

European Commission official and agricultural economist John McClintock was trotted out to defend the CAP and said that scrapping the CAP 'could lead to food riots like we have seen in other parts of the world like Haiti.' This is scaremongering of the worst kind, but defenders of the CAP have seized on the food security card.

Mr McClintock is described as an agricultural economist, but he doesn't seem to have much love for the market mechanism. He said, 'There are still people who dream about the free market in agriculture, but the reality is that it could be socially disastrous.' Socially disastrous for whom, one has to ask?

Mr McClintock said that scrapping the CAP would mean that many farmers would not be able to survive. But is getting rid of marginal and inefficient producers necessarily a bad thing? He also argued that food prices would go up, but this could be offset if the EU lowered the high tariff walls it erects against much of the rest of the world. Defenders of the CAP argue that this helps the EU to be self-sufficient, but is it such a bad thing to import from countries well suited for agricultural production? Anyway, if one is concerned about self-sufficiency, perhaps there ought to be renewed attention to the quality of agricultural land when development takes place?

He also said that one of the main objectives of the CAP was to ensure that farmers had a comparable income to those in cities. Fair enough, but there are many people in rural areas who are not farmers and suffer from relative poverty. Surely this is a case for income supplements rather than subsidies to agriculture?

Similarly he argued that the CAP kept the countryside alive. But that is a case for transparent subsdies to keep the land in good heart and environmentally sustainable, not for blanket subsidies like the single farm payment.

The CAP costs €50bn a year and hardly represents value for money. 40 per cent or more of the EU budget represents a high opportunity cost. But, of course, we are where we are and withdrawing subsidies overnight would hit the rural economy hard. So it is incumbent on those who would withdraw from the EU to say what they would replace the CAP with in terms of domestic policy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Thinking about the unthinkable

Fifty years ago saw the start of the Cuban missile crisis. It was a frightening time if you were fifteen years old, as I was, and whatever else one says about Jack Kennedy, one has to admire the way he managed the crisis and resisted the calls of the hawks for early military action. Now it's all old history and it was announced today that two of the Cold War missile sites have been given listed status.

Nuclear war strategy was referred to then as 'thinking about the unthinkable'. Perhaps we also now need to start thinking about another kind of unthinkable, Britain leaving the European Union and what sort of domestic agricultural policy might replace the CAP. Whatever one thinks of British membership of the EU, few would mourn leaving the CAP, but British farmers would be worried about what would take its place. No doubt some contingency thinking is already being undertaken.

My hunch is that if there was a straight yes-no choice, the majority of British voters (although perhaps not in Scotland) would vote to leave. There is some evidence to support this. Peter Kellner of YouGov has written an interesting contribution on underlying attitudes for the LSE European Politics blog: Kellner

In essence the message is that there are three attitude clusters in the electorate in terms of attitudes to the outside world and only one of those could be largely relied on to vote in favour. Kellner thinks that fear would shape a lot of decisions. Of course, that could be fear of the consequences of staying in or fear of the consequences of leaving. Much would depend on the campaign.

Of course, we may never get to a yes-no vote. Dave Cameron does not like the EU, but he does not want to withdraw. His favoured scenario is to 'renegotiate' after the next election when the Conservatives might have an overall majority. He would then put the renegotiated deal to the electorate. Harold Wilson took the stance of 'no entry on Tory terms' before the 1975 referendum and got a few goodies out of the EU, but essentially we stayed in on the terms agreed by Ted Heath. Dave would probably get some concessions out of the EU, but they would fall short of what Eurosceptics wanted.

Hence some Eurosceptics are calling for a yes-no referendum at the time of the next election. Conservatives are worried about a UKIP victory in the 2014 European Parliament elections, a more than likely scenario, and then losing votes to them in the following general election.

How this will all play out depends on a wide range of different factors affecting Conservative Party politics. If Labour wins, there is a different scenario (although if they were dependent on Lib Dem support, there would be another one again). Ed Miliband always jumps on any bandwagon that comes along, although usually what he does is call for a public inquiry rather than a referendum. There wouldn't be any judges left to staff the courts if all his requests were granted. However, Miliband could promise some sort of referendum, although its timing and nature would probably be left vague.

Anyway, the point is that Britain leaving the EU is a sufficiently serious possibility to start thinking what we would do then and that is what I plan to do over the next few months, starting with the nature of agricultural policy betweeen the end of the Second World War and our accession to the EU.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dancing towards convergence

EU Farm Commissioner Dacion Ciolos is said to be resigned to the fact that the current proposal for internal convergence of direct aid payments will need to be watered down in order for a compromise to be reached, reports Agra Europe.

'It is no longer acceptable for two hectares of hill land in the same member state with the same agronomic potential to account for differences of €100 to €600 and, in some regions, even more,' argued the Commissioner at the 2012 Congress of EU umbrella farmers union Copa-Cogeca last week. 'Over the period 2014-2020, a genuine convergence campaign is quite simply unavoidable if we want to still be credible.' One might add that there are a lot of things about the CAP are incredible, but that hasn't stopped them remaining in place.

There appear to be two groups of member states working on alternatives to the Commission’s plans for internal convergence. Some 40 per cent of a country’s Pillar One envelope would be used for flat-rate aids in 2014 under the current proposal, but critics claim this will lead to subsidies being moved away from more productive areas.

But then, of course, there has always been confusion about whether the CAP is there to boost the competitiveness of EU agriculture or act as a form of social policy for marginal farmers. In practice it is more of the latter, but a remarkably inefficient one in terms of reaching its target at minimum cost.

The losses and gains incurred by farms due to the transition should be limited, Ireland, Spain, Lithuania, Denmark, Portugal and Italy are said to have argued at the recent Management Committee meeting. Under a proposal tabled by the six, countries would be allowed to ring-fence ‘greening’ payments for individual holdings rather than on a national or regional basis – cushioning the impact for livestock farms in particular.

Meanwhile, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia are pushing for member states to be able to apply a flat rate of national or regional subsidies in 2021, rather than 2019. Warning against what they say would be a “profound redistribution” proposed for some countries, governments would be able to choose between three alternative convergence models.

Only a handful of liberally-minded countries are understood to have defended the Commission’s proposed timetable for convergence, albeit conceding that some degree of flexibility is necessary.

The issue is likely to be a tricky one of the agenda of the Farm Council in Luxembourg later this month.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

France and Germany do their deal

Long-term observers of the CAP know that any agreement between France and Germany can often shape the direction of the reform process. Even with many more member states, this still remains true. Earlier this week the two countries issued a joint statement calling for a freeze at 2013 levels in nominal terms Agreement

Calls for a nominal freeze in the budget, which will still mean a decline in real terms, have been growing in recent months and around half of governments voiced their support for the Commission plan at a General Affairs Council late last month.

The country’s two agriculture ministers – France’s Stéphane Le Foll (rather superior and disdainful in a typical French mode) and German counterpart Ilse Aigner – came to the agreement after meeting in Berlin. They cited the 'importance of the CAP for growth, employment and the environment and innovation in rural areas along with Europe's role in ensuring food security worldwide', in their statement. In other words, the traditional rather general but fine sounding justifications of a dysfunctional policy.

Their rejection of any reduction in Pillar One allocations was also notable taking into consideration the fact that Germany is the biggest contributor to EU funds, while France is the biggest beneficiary of direct aid payments. Germany and France join the likes of Austria, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Spain in opposing cuts, leaving member states such as the UK, Netherlands and Sweden seeking a more austere budget with a reduced prospect of success.

Of course, British prime minister Dave Cameron is under heavy pressure from within his own party to take a tough line in budget negotiations. Indeed, Dave is no fan of the EU and reflects the traditional British distaste for the CAP in particular. Vetoing the budget would go down well at home, but it would also mean that the EU would revert to annual budgets determined by qualified majority voting, reduced the influence of Britain and its allies.

Meanwhile for an authoritative account of tensions between member states and the European Parliament over the CAP, this blog post by Christilla Roderer-Rynning is recommended: Parliament

Monday, October 01, 2012

Old divisions rear their head

Those who like to emphasise the way in which 'discourse' or ideas can shape policy have been able to trace significant changes in the debate about the Common Agricultural Policy, but this has not been reflected in real reform. Indeed, older discourses have been revived with the debate about food security. Last week's Farm Council saw a revival of the old debate between advocates of a more market oriented policy and those who want more subsidy and intervention.

There was some progress on CAP reform with most EU governments backing an overhaul of the CAP's 'less favoured areas' (LFA) scheme, but there was division over how best to deal with market shocks in future.

Most governments agreed that the overhaul of the LFA scheme should be based on new 'biophysical' factors but added that the backing would be dependent on them getting considerable flexibility to adapt the criteria and parameters to their territories, with French farm minister Stéphane Le Foll, whose country has been resistant to the overhaul, particularly vocal on this point.

A majority also agreed that member states needing more time to make the transition should be allowed to extend their deadline to December 2015, from the original January 2014, but German agriculture minister Ilse Aigner, backed by Poland and Austria, questioned the plan and claimed that more than just 'fine tuning' based on a common EU framework would be needed.

A clearer dividing line was found over how the EU should deal with agricultural market volatility, with Greece and Ireland backing calls for a “political stance” on volatility, while the UK and Netherlands insisted that farmers' decisions should be based purely on the market conditions.

Ministers were discussing the European Commission's plans to update the CAP's traditional market management tools under the 'Single CMO' Regulation - namely public intervention, private storage and export refunds. The plans for 2014 onwards include the introduction of automatic tendering for public intervention for skimmed milk powder and butter as well as an accelerated procedure for private storage aid.

While many member states consider the Commission's plans to be sufficient, several called for market intervention to go further than the proposals and involve automatic updates to reference prices for public intervention. The divisions on this point were largely along the traditional lines of those who favour the ‘free market’ approach and more ‘interventionist’ supporters.

Friday, September 21, 2012

'Greening' remains controversial

Last week’s informal Farm Council meeting in Cyprus – the first since the summer break – reminded decision-makers that gaining consensus over the ‘greening’ requirements for direct payments is one of the biggest obstacles for CAP reform.

As Cypriot farm minister Sofoclis Aletraris admitted to Agra Europe at the meeting, while the greening of the CAP is a desire for all member states, the exact definition of what ‘greening’ means, or should mean, varies across the EU. Indeed, it's a bit like being in favour of motherhood and apple pie. No one is likely to argue for 'browning' the CAP, but the devil is in the detail.

One of the issues is the impact on profitability. The current chair of the EU Farm Council also admitted that greening will be a “tax” for farmers and that the final system must ensure that farming is still profitable to avoid people leaving the profession.

EU Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos insists that progress on reaching an agreement is being made and that the European Commission plan to link 30 per cent of farm income support to three EU-wide environmental requirements is now better understood by governments and farmers than it was before. That doesn't mean they like it any more and it has been my view that is a rather blunt instrument as a means of achieving environmental objectives.

Ciolos again defended the plan at the meeting and reiterated the EU executive’s offer of ‘equivalence’ − whereby a farmer involved in Pillar Two agri-environment/climate or national certification schemes would qualify for one or more greening requirements − to satisfy the many critics.

Greening is not a measure against increased production but rather a way of maintaining sustainable production in the medium-term by protecting water, soil and biodiversity, he argued.

There is an underlying tension here between economic and environmental sustainability. Reconciling them is not easy and arguably needs a more fine grained approach with more sophisticated policy instruments.

Good Food March on Brussels

Protesters from a variety of environmental organisations from the Slow Food Movement to Friends of the Earth converged on Brussels this week in the Good Food March: Good Food

They consider that the CAP pays too much attention to the needs of agribusiness and want a CAP that is fairer to smaller producers and family farming while protecting the environment and the interests of developing countries.

It has to be said that the event was greeted with a certain dismissive cynicism in Brussels: Organic cake

The protesters place great faith in the involvement of the European Parliament in the decision-making process, but many of the traditional interests are strongly represented there and all it may do is water down and delay an already difficult reform process.

A video interview with a Friends of the Earth Europe representative on the march can be found here: Friends of the Earth

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The structure of the wine market and the issue of quality

I have been reading an interesting paper about 'Quality Classifications in Competition: Price Formation in the German Wine Market' by Jorg Rossel and Jens Beckert from the Max Planck Institute in Cologne.

One conclusion that can be drawn from the paper is that the market has some very distinctive characteristics. This does not mean that no more general lessons can be drawn from it, particularly given the EU's drive to promote high quality, value added production in European agriculture.

Although the authors don't say this, one lesson you can draw from their paper is that if you price something high enough, the initial reaction of consumers will be that it is high quality. Consider the market in jams and marmalades. There are commodity products sold in supermarkets, although there is some price and quality differentiation. Then there are high quality products sold in farmers' markets and (in the UK) in National Trust shops. These can be two or three times as expensive as the commodity product, but there is no system of classification as there is for wines.

A central theme of the paper is the existence of two systems of classification in Germany, one established by the regulatory authorities, ranging from table wines to quality wine with distinction. Then there is a separate system established by artisan producers which place considerable emphasis on the concept of 'terroir' which has been so important to French wines. Their approach is 'based on the conviction that the soil and microclimatic conditions as well as the craftsmanship of the wine producer determine wine quality.'

But how can the consumer tell that something is good quality? There are, of course, plenty of wine experts whose advice is widely disseiminated in the print media and online. However, the literature which the authors review very effectively casts doubt on this expertise. Most of a group of students of enology from Bordeaux were not able to distinguish white wine from red wine just by taste. A series of experiments show that wine experts do not exhibit a consistent quality scale in their judgments.

Quality assessments are very contingent. Today dry wines are seen as being of high quality and enjoy high legitimacy in the market. Only a century ago sweet wines merited high regard. One might add that medical advice is to drink red rather than white wine and dry white rather than sweet, but this is not a factor that the authors mention.

The authors make it clear that wine drinking habits are influenced by social class and status. The phrase 'wine snob' comes to mind, although it is not one that the authors use. The authors note, 'Becoming competent in the terroir philosophy, and the status differences of wine established through it, demands high cultural capital and is therefore also socially exclusive.'

Quality in the terroir philosophy, the authors argue, remains an abstract and evasive concept: 'it can be understood only by actors possessing high cultural capital in the field and can be bought only by those consumers with enough economic capital to pay for the "taste" of authenticity. The system allows for evocative fantasies to be aroused based on the qualities symbolically represented in a wine. These fantasies can be translated into status differences and thereby provide "good reasons" to purchase the high priced wine.'

The authors' underlying theoretical perspective, drawn from economic sociology, is that 'In an increasing number of markets, there is uncertainty among buyers as to the quality of products.' They link this increasing uncertainty with an increasing aesthiticization and moralization of everyday life and consumer products.'

As the authors note there are 'markets where the quality of the product is assessed based on "functional performance" that can be measured objectively.' But, in agriculture, this often involves products that are transformed before reaching the final consumer. For example, wheat can be assessed by its moisture content but this is of little relevance to the final consumer who buys bread according to its perceived quality in the different forms in which it is offered.

Wine is a very distinctive product in which much of the perception of quality is very subjective and open to manipulation of the image of the craft skills of the individual winemaker and the specific qualities of a certain vineyard. Specific knowledge is required to make judgments about wine. Neverthless, in European food markets more generally, the market for high quality products is limited by income and the willingness of consumers to purchase an image of the production process as well as the product itself.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Cypriot presidency contemplates CAP budget cuts

The informal meeting of farm ministers in Nicosia from 9 to 11 September which marks the effective start of the Cypriot presidency after the August holiday break is going to focus on water scarcity, land abandonment and soil erosion. These are important topics, against the background of climate change, and especially important to southern member states, but they are not at the heart of the CAP reform agenda.

However, the word is that the Cypriot presidency thinks that there will have to be much bigger cuts to the CAP budget in the next seven year cycle than contemplated hitherto. This comes against the background of talk of a €100m cut in the EU budget to match austerity at home. As the largest budget line, the CAP would have to take its fair share of the pain.

It is being said that direct payments to farmers and rural development would take the biggest hit which makes sense as they are the largest components of the budget. There might be more flexibility to switch between these two budget lines.

Needless to say, some member states are already gearing up to oppose any such move. The other difficulty is that there is a great temptation in such circumstances to reduce spending by x per cent across the board without considering which spending offers a cost effective way of achieving policy objectives. But, then, that has been the story of the CAP.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Double change at Defra worries farmers

The double change at Defra of secretary of state and farm minister has worried farmers and their friends, although new secretary of state Owen Patterson is said to be on message on badger culls: Defra

Patterson asked Hilary Benn 500 questions on badger culls when he was at Defra and has been on a study tour in the United States to look at bovine TB and its control.

Caroline Spelman was never fully convincing as a safe pair of hands in what admittedly is a disparate and challenging portfolio. However, what really worries farmers is the departure of Jim Paice as farm minister who was seen as having an understanding of the industry and a sympathy with farmers as one himself. Ironically, Dave Cameron sacked him by mobile phone when he was announcing the new code of practice for dairy farmers which many saw as his biggest achievement. Tributes to him from farming leaders here: Paice

However, the arrival of David Heath in his place means that the Lib Dems at last have a representative in Defra, a suprising omission given where they hold many of their seats. It also means an end to the experiment of Isles of Scilly MP Andrew George as Lib Dem liaison person, something that never really worked.

Whether the presence of a Lib Dem will mean any change in policy remains to be seen. The real need now is for Britain's voice to be heard effectively in the CAP negotiations in order to bring them to some kind of reasonable conclusion and not hopelessly behind schedule.

Elsewhere Lib Dem Jo Swinson, until now PPS to Nick Clegg, is reportedly in at BIS and will be responsible for the Grocery Adjudicator Bill, a key topic for those in the food chain.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Is the complexity deliberate?

For all the talk of a drive towards simplification, complexity is a built in feature of the Common Agricultural Policy. It makes it more difficult for critics to assess what the real effects of decisions are. It becomes more challenging to mount a sustained and informed critique.

Bringing agriculture into the co-decision mechanism at the European Parliament was unavoidable given that it was a supposed boost to democracy, but an alternative narrative would be that it gave more opportunities for special interests to defend the status quo.

MEPs have tabled no less than 7,415 amendments to the proposed 2014 reform of the CAP before departing for their long summer recess. It will take until September just to translate them.

With 2,292 amendments on direct payments to farmers alone, changes are proposed to almost every part of the Commission's proposals. There are those who wonder whether the sheer volume of amendments is a deliberate strategy on the part of some member states to defend the status quo. France, Germany and Italy come to mind.

It is going to be difficult to complete the reform process on time. Moreover, what was a less than radical reform in the first place is going to be watered down even further.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Financiers spring to defence of ETPs

The controversy over exchange traded products (ETPs) and their effect on food prices continues with some financial providers say they will not withdraw them. In a report issued this April, Finance Watch, a Brussels-based public interest advocacy group argued that excessive commodity speculation raises prices artificially and damages the market for real buyers and sellers. Read more here: Commodities

Others take the opposite view. They point out that the size of the financial market in commodities is tiny in comparison with the physical market and it is the physical market that sets price - the tail does not wag the dog. Nevertheless, the financial market could still have a disproportionate effect in uncertain conditions.

Against that Guy Wolf from commodities broker Marex Spectron commented, 'The futures market is a forum for buyers and sellers to hedge their exposure that benefits both parties and in fact we need more speculation to help absorb volatility.' Indeed, even a report called Farming Money from Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) admits that speculators can bridge the gap between buyers and sellers and provide liquidity in the market.

Twenty-five groups including FoEE are urging member states to use this autumn's review of Mifid (the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive) to curb speculation in food and other commodity derivative markets. They are advocating strict position limits and banning financial entities from speculating in commodity markets. Read more here: Speculation

The largest providers of ETPs have made it clear that they have no plans to withdraw these instruments after a number of operators said that they would. Volksbanken of Austria announced that it was withdrawing investment products linked to agricultural commodities and Germany's Commerzbank removed agricultural products from its Comstage commodity exchange traded fund in July. In March Deutsche Bank, the second largest provider of ETPs in Europe, said it would refrain from launching any new ones based on basic foodstuffs.

However, ETF Securities, the largest provider of commodity traded ETPs in Europe and iShares, the world's biggest ETP manager, said they had no plans to scrap their offerings. Their defenders argue that investment in agricultural commodity ETPs do not result in hoarding because they invest in futures unlike physical gold ETPs which hold bullion in a vault.

Globalization of agriculture inevitably led to its involvement in more sophisticated financial instruments which some would describe as socially harmful. Others see them as an efficient market clearing mechanism. Much depends on how influential they are in the market. At present they are not dominant and an outright ban would be an over reaction.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Banks withdraw food commodity funds

There has been considerable discussion about whether speculation drives food commodity prices up, although no definitive answer. My hunch would be that it tends to make them more volatile which creates difficulties for both producers and consumers.

Now a number of European banks are withdrawing vehicles that make it relatively easy for investors to speculate on food prices: Speculation

The decision represents a victory for campaigning groups such as Food Watch, Oxfam and the World Development Movement. The banks were concerned about reputational damage, no doubt enhanced by upward pressure on prices following the drought in the United States.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dairy farmers under pressure

The recent cuts in farm gate prices for milk have placed dairy farmers under real pressure and there is no doubt that many of them are not covering the cost of production. Blockades and evident consumer sympathy have stirred many supermarkets to increase the price they pay for liquid milk.

However, that is only part of the story. Half of all milk produced goes for manufacturing and that has always attracted a lower price (although the old Milk Marketing Board had a complicated system that varied the price according to the end use of the milk so more was paid if it was used for chocolate crumb than cheddar cheese).

Manufacturing prices are driven by global markets which are in turn affected by low cost mega dairies in California and elsewhere. There is hope that prices may firm up after the seasonal production peak in Europe. Prices in June were firmer for some products, particularly butter and cream, but average dairy commodity prices fell back by 5.9 per cent at Fonterra's latest Global Dairy Trade auction earlier this month, largely as a resut of increased supply. Prices may well remain stagnant until September.

Factors to take into account include whether product stocks will be sold before the next flush of milk begins in the southern hemisphere where countries including New Zealand, Argentina and Uruguay are efficient producers. The emerging economy growth rate is also an important consideration as it drives greater consumption of dairy products. The recession in Europe also has an impact and British deliveries in the two weeks to the end of June were down 2.1 per cent on the same period last year.

It is also worth bearing in mind that farmers are encountering these financial difficulties despite substantial EU subsidies.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The challenge of feeding the world

The urgent need to increase farm production in order to feed a growing global population was a recurring theme last week with a number of reports and opinions published on the subject.

The words ‘productivity’ and ‘sustainability’ were the key elements of the latest Agricultural Outlook report from the OECD and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), covering the years 2012-2021. The UN predicts that the population of the world will increase by around a third from current levels, which will mean farm production will need to increase by 60 per cent over the next 40 years.

This translates into an additional one billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million tonnes of meat a year by 2050 compared to 2005-2007 levels. In order to achieve this level, the report suggests a number of ways that this can be achieved, particularly in developing countries, including supplemental irrigation, improving storage and transport links and the more efficient use of nutrients.

Whether or not this level of production can be reached is another matter and one that many analysts feel is not possible without a considerable overhaul of agricultural policy, the rapid introduction of new technology and in a way that meets the rather loose term of ‘sustainable’ or the contested term 'sustainable intensfication'.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Not so sweet

In article in this week’s Agra Europe, European Commission spokesperson Roger Waite has denied that sugar refiners in the EU market are being treated unfairly and claims that persistently high world market prices are to blame for supply difficulties.

The spokesperson for agriculture and rural development argues that the different mechanisms created by the Commission to release additional product to supply the internal market – the release of out-of-quota beet sugar and the reduced-duty tenders to source imported cane sugar – are not discriminatory, but are “two different systems suited to two different realities”.

Waite was responding to an Agra Europe article written in May by Gerald Mason of sugar refiners Tate & Lyle which was highly critical of the Commission’s management of the sugar market.

Waite concedes that the loss of exclusive rights to imported cane for refining after the 2006 reforms has created some difficulties for the former ‘traditional’ refiners. But he notes that these companies received EU restructuring aid totalling €150 million in the aftermath of the reforms.

In addition, the article reiterates the EU executive’s determination to liberalise the internal EU sugar market by abolishing production quotas from 2015. This will be welcome news for many sugar-using companies within the EU but conflicts with many MEPs from sugar-producing member states who are pushing for an extension to 2020.

The sugar lobby has always been a powerful one, but lost ground after the WTO judgement on the EU's sugar regime.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Farmers go for pre-nups as land prices soar

The rise in the price of farmland is leading increasing numbers of farmers to sign pre- and post-nuptial agreements to protect their wealth from enlarged divorce payments to their spouses. A roll in the hay can clearly have consequences not envisaged in the past.

Farmers who have not completed such an agreement face the unwelcome prospect of selling farmland or borrowing money to finance a divorce settlement. Farming divorces are complicated by the fact that the farm is usually the marital home, meaning its value is taken into account when deciding financial settlements for ex-wives.

Selling off part of the farm is not really a solution. 25 years ago a farm might have been viable between 500 and 700 acres, but today something like 1,200 acres is needed to sustain a profitable business, even with CAP subsidies (which are related to the farmable area anyway). If the farm is reduced in size, it may no longer be able to support heirs, particularly if more than one wants to be involved in the farm business.

According to the National Farmers Union it has had more calls from members on this topic since the 2010 ruling involving German heiress Katrin Radmacher which stated that courts can take pre-nups into account when deciding settlements. It has handled 40 referrals from members seeking advice on divorce and pre-nups over the last three years.

This gives a new meaning to the term selective benefit in the pressure group literature. Anyone can get advice on a divorce from a family lawyer, but they may not encounter that many cases involving farms and be relatively unfamiliar with the special considerations involved. That is where an organisation like the NFU can help, showing the relevance of Olson's by-product theory of selective incentives which seeks to explain how lobbying activity can be sustained in the face of the free rider problem

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fields of gold

English farmland has gone up in value by more than 10,000 per cent in the last 60 years. Research from agent Knight Frank shows that an investor who paid £56 an acre for land when the Queen ascended the throne in 1952 would get £6,073 if they sold today, although that is slightly below last June's average figure of £6,156.

Land values started to soar once the UK joined the European Community in 1973. Farmers were then able to benefit from CAP subsidies and land values rose by 390 per cent between 1972 and 1982. There had been subsidies before then, of course, but deficiency payments were more closely related to market fluctuations than blanket EU subsidies. Another consideration was that farmland looked like a relatively safe asset class against the background of the economic turmoil of the 1970s

The 1980s were less buoyant, but in the 1990s demand started to outpace supply, pushing up prices. In 1995 flexible farm business tenancies were introduced which made it more attractive for farmers to rent out land. This led to less land being available on the market at a time when demand was rising.

The recent debate over global food scarcity has reawakened interest in land, along with the drive for alternative fuel sources. However, it may be that prices have peaked. Yields are very low, 1 per cent at best, and farm businesses have an erratic performance due to the impact of the weather and other factors beyond the control of the farmer.

There were important tax incentives relating to land ownership, relating principally to income tax, capital gains tax and inheritance tax. Measures to cap reliefs from trading losses at 25 per cent of income or £50,000 whichever is the greater, will restrict the possibility of offsetting losses on farm businesses.

Many purchases are, however, are lifestyle related. The British tradition of spending a weekend in the country has survived and one way to demonstrate that you have arrived is to buy a country estate. There will always be a strong demand for estates with sporting rights, particularly if they are within an easy drive of London.

The other side of the coin is that it is difficult to break into farming other than by inheritance. Tenancies do not become available that often and local authorities are cutting back on their portfolios of entry level farms to release their capital value. Whilst statistics sometimes exaggerate the ageing profile of British farmers because some of them are in semi-retirement, the industry needs a constant influx of innovative younger people.

It's not an easy life, though. Hours can be long, there is a high rate of deaths and injuries from accidents and there is a lot of often monotonous work. To succeed you need a combination of farming, technological, business and marketing skills. But for some people it is the only life. Two of my nephews grew up on a very successful Welsh farm that has been in the family for generations. One stayed on the farm and loves it. I will be visiting an exhibition of pottery by the other one later this month.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Olive oil crisis hits Southern Europe

Unwanted surpluses are a recurrent problem of the CAP. And now the troubled Southern European countries have been hit by a surplus of olive oil, driving down prices to uneconomic levels. Domestic consumption of the diet staple has fallen because of the economic crisis: in Greece and Italy it has fallen to 1995 levels and in Spain to 2002 levels. At the same time there has been a bumper crop in Spain. The price of premium extra virgin oive oil fell this month to $2,900 a tonne, the lowest since 2002 and down more than half from nearly $6,000 a tonne in 2005.

Spain, Italy and Greece account for some 70 per cent of the world's output. The crop is crucial for some of the poorest regions of Spain including Andalucia, where the unemployment rate was 33 per cent last quarter. Urged on by farmers' union Copa-Cogeca, the EU has started to pay companies to stockpile oil.

Intervention buying was one of the worst features of the old style CAP. It costs money to store the produce and often it deteriorates in quality over time. One then faces the problem of how to sell it without causing market disruption. In the past 'ageing' butter was sold to grateful consumers in the Soviet Union while skimmed milk powder was dumped on third world countries, driving local dairy farmers out of business. Such outlets are not available for olive oil.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Green confusion

Agra Europe reports that support has been building in recent weeks for the idea of member states being offered a menu of options for the ‘greening’ of the CAP post-2013, with a majority of member states backing the plan. But EU farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos took the opportunity at last week’s Farm Council meeting to speak out against taking this route, pushing instead for the principle of greening ‘equivalence’.

Ciolos argued that if member states were allowed to effectively pick and choose which environmental actions would be eligible for the ‘greening’ component of the new direct aid scheme, there woud be a risk of creating an unequal state of affairs across the bloc. Some actions which certain member states may deem appropriate for their particular situation may be more or less ‘beneficial’ to the environment than those implemented in others, for example. An alternative view would be that such an approach is compatible with the notion of subsidiarity.

The proposed menu option, which also drew the ire of environmental groups last week, goes against Ciolos’s ideal that 'quality and consistency' should apply across the EU27 when it comes to the next CAP. The three EU-wide measures that the Commission is proposing for the ‘greening’ elements of the direct payment scheme might also be seen as fitting better with the Commission’s push for 'simplification' of the CAP.

This disagreement between the Commission and member states highlights the fact that the EU farm sector is not as united as the Commission no doubt hoped it would be at this stage. But with 27 diverse member states with differing climates, farmland types and political systems around the table – and against the backdrop of one of the worst financial crises Europe has ever seen - the Commission will almost certainly need to show some flexibility. Or to put it another way, there will have to be another messy and incoherent compromise in order to secure agreement.

These greening proposals have always been ill thought through in my view and risk a lose-lose outcome of damaging farm businesses whilst not helping the environment.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Have farmers less to whinge about?

Sometimes I think that Farmers Weekly should be called Whingers Weekly. Often it's the weather - too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet. Admittedly, it is a challenge in the UK's variable climate. Then it's often prices (where dairy farmers have real concerns) or late payment of subsidies. After that it's vegetarians, defenders of the badger and opponents of GM crops (both of the latter two go way over the top on many occasions). Or it's retailer power, and that's where I have real sympathy with farmers. Let's hope the new supermarket ajudicator makes a difference.

Anyway the NFU has launched a new campaign to boost the image of British farming. Apparently the president is going to emulate the Jubilee by going up the Thames in a farm themed boat to the House of Commons: Farming

Last year farming was one of the most profitable industries in the UK, lifting aggregate net profits 25 per cent to £5.7bn. Measured against other sectors only mining and oil saw bigger growth according to UBS, the investment bank. Of course, farming can have bad years as well as good and not all sectors are doing well, but it does lead one to wonder whether such large blanket subsidies are needed.

As NFU presiden Peter Kendall points out, modern farms make a great deal of use of ICT and 'It's now a high-tech industry, not the way it was 10 years ago.' Pardaoxically, consumers may like a more bucolic image, but then they also want a ready supply of cheap food.

The good times may also be over before they beagn. Farming is fossil fuel intensive and in the long run prices are likely to rise in real terms despite the current dip. Farmers do, of course, pay a lower level of duty on 'red' diesel (sufficiently lower to lead to its occasional illegal use). Supplies of grain are rising which is likely to depress prices. Turmoil in the eurozone may hit exports and the rise in the value of the pound will reduce the amount received in subsidies. However, demand for food is likely to continue to rise, pushing up prices.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hollande appoints farm minister

One of the first appointments made by President Hollande’s prime minister Jean-Marie Ayrault was to make current MEP Stéphane Le Foll the country’s new farm minister.

A close ally of Hollande, Le Foll’s appointment may prove to be an extremely shrewd move by the new French president as the Socialist MEP has been heavily involved in scrutinising the European Commission’s CAP reform proposals as part of the Parliament’s agriculture committee and is a substitute for the budget committee. I have seen Le Foll in action myself when I have given evidence to the agriculture committee and he is clearly very smart.

Le Foll has also authored a report calling for measures to help EU agriculture adapt to the effects of global warming. It is likely that he will push for a stronger ‘greening’ element at the CAP negotiating table, which will not please some British farmers, as well as a fairer distribution of aid among member states. Of course what is 'fair' is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Backlash against open government

It's no real surprise that there has been a backlash against transparency and open government in the CAP and that the group at who try to shine light in dark corners are facing greater difficulties following court cases: Transparency

Revealing details about payments to individual farm businesses discloses how much some large businesses and food processing firms are receiving from the taxpayer. The bigger you are, the more you get. Of course, it could be argued that the CAP is a very inefficient way of delivering income supplements and that if it is there to promote competitiveness, more is likely to go to bigger farms which tend to be more efficient (and also have a better record in areas like animal welfare).

If one was designing the policy again today, we wouldn't end up with what we've got. But we are constrained by starting from where we are in trying to make reforms.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Greening proposals watered down

Agra Europebroke the news last week that member states are demanding greater flexibility when it comes to the ‘greening’ elements of the proposals for the CAP post-2013.

It has now reported that the proposal for an alternative ‘menu’ with a range of options was said to have been warmly welcomed by a majority of states at a subsequent Special Committee on Agriculture meeting. This could mean that the European Commission’s much-vaunted plan to tie 30 per cent of direct payments to just three EU-wide ‘greening’ measures from 2014 is dead in the water.

As the influential CAP commentator Chris Horseman has argued, it could be said that by not making crystal clear the purpose of ‘greening’ the direct aid payments to farmers under Pillar 1, the EU’s decision-makers have allowed the more influential member states to grasp the nettle and shape a more politically-palatable proposal in its place.

Although the new menu proposal is almost certain to be more acceptable to member states, it is unlikely that they will allow for a more environmentally-sound policy than the original ‘greening’ measures put forward by the Commission and environmental groups such as Birdlife International have already made their feelings known, claiming it will mean 'Europe’s most environmentally harmful farmers to get away without changing anything.'

However, it is arguable that the original proposals were too inflexible and would simply create transaction costs without a favourable environmental outcome. It is not easy to devise cost effective policy instruments for agri-environmental policy that also avoid the 'additionality' problem, i.e., paying farmers for doing something they would have done anyway. Many farmers do see themselves as trustees of the land they own or rent on a long-term basis.

However in the UK the practice of taking on additional parcels of land away from the main farm to make it a commercially viable unit may not help this notion of stewardship.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Amid the wreckage

Alexander Stubb, Finland's EU affairs minister, is quoted in the Financial Times as saying. 'The worry I have in the whole European debate - and we have seen it in the French presidential elections, we see it in the Netherlands, we have also seen it in Finland - is that some fundamentals of European integration are under attack. They include Schengen, the ECB, the euro, the internal market and trade policy. And you know, if we take them away, what's left?

The short and unfortunate answer is the Common Agricultural Policy which still dominates the EU's budget. There is a certain irony in the possibility that among the wreckage of European policies, the CAP would be left standing. Arguably it is the most dysfunctional of the EU's policies.

Stubb, by the way, is a self-confessed EU nerd. Intrigued by his English-sounding name, I found that he went to high school in Daytona Beach, Florida, took his first degree in the States and has a PhD from LSE. Read more here: Stubb

Friday, April 27, 2012

Completing CAP reform on time

In this week’s issue of Agra Europe, editorial director Chris Horseman, who is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable observers of the CAP, suggests that the deadline of January 1, 2014 for the new CAP could be missed unless EU leaders can conclude the Multiannual Financial Framework negotiations by the end of this year.

Horseman argues that the crux of the problem is the fact that MEPs have taken the view that they are not in a position to pass judgement on how CAP spending should be allocated in 2014-2020 if they do not know how much overall spending will be available. Therefore, the need for their Council counterparts to agree a financial framework to provide funds for the Single Farm Payment system becomes an imperative.

However keen the European Commission may be to keep the negotiations on the reform of the CAP and on the future MFF technically separate, the two issues are politically inseparable, Horseman says, before exploring the ramifications and potential scenarios instigated by the deadline for CAP reform being missed.

It has been my view for some time that the deadline would be missed and that January 2015 was a more likely date. It has also been my view that the involvement of the European Parliament would slow down the process and make reform more difficult to achieve. The requirements of a democratic process mean that it should be involved, but the effect on outcomes may be less desirable.

The crux of the issue is that when European domestic governments are practising austerity, and are likely to do for some time to come whatever the calls for a growth strategy, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the share of the EU budget devoted to the CAP. There is a high 'opportunity cost' in terms of money that could be spent on infrastructure projects that would help employment and research and development that would enhance Europe's flagging competitiveness.

Even within the farm budget there is a strong case for spending more on applied research which would help European agriculture to meet food security challenges in a sustainable way much more than blanket subsidies.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

CAP reform proposals 'too complex'

The Court of Auditors has published a report arguing that the proposed CAP reforms are too complex and will not achieve the desired aim of simplification. They might not end the controversial practice of 'sofa farming'.

The Court recognises the efforts made by the Commission to simplify the provisions of the CAP and to address a number of observations made by the Parliament, the Council and the Court. However, the Court considers that the legislative framework of this policy remains too complex.

For example, six distinct layers of rules govern rural development expenditure. With respect to cross compliance, the Court considers that, in spite of the proposed reorganisation, the complexity of this policy continues to make it difficult for paying agencies and beneficiaries to administer.

In spite of the claim that it focuses on results, the policy remains fundamentally focussed on spending and controlling expenditure and therefore oriented more towards compliance than performance. In particular, the specific objectives of direct payments to farmers are not set out in the articles of the relevant regulation, nor are the expected results of those provisions or the type of indicators to be used to measure such results.

With respect to rural development, the Court has underlined the importance of setting out specific concrete objectives that the proposed measures are designed to achieve and of ensuring that support is targeted to rural areas where the aid is most needed. Similarly, the objectives and qualitative and quantitative results that are expected of the implementation of cross compliance obligations as well as of the ‘greening’ component of direct payments are not adequately laid down. The disclosure of such objectives would help focus the policy on delivering the desired results.

The Court has noted the Commission’s intention to direct CAP payments to “active farmers” and to achieve a more balanced distribution of direct payments among beneficiaries. However, the Court considers that the risk persists that payments may continue to be made to beneficiaries who do not exercise any agricultural activity. Furthermore, the Court notes that the redistribution effect of the reduction of the amount aid when such aid exceeds certain levels (“capping”) will be limited.

Furthermore, the Court has doubts as to whether some of these proposed measures can be implemented effectively without imposing an excessive administrative burden on national managing agencies and on farmers. As a way out of this difficulty, the Court suggests adopting a general and simple definition of what constitutes an “active farmer” and to entrust the Commission with the task of managing the implementation of the resulting legislation with a view to reaching the high level objectives set out in the Treaty. These objectives are to increase agricultural productivity as well as increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture.

The Court notes that the Commission estimates that the proposed reform is likely to result in an increase of 15 per cent in the costs of managing the direct payment schemes which will be borne by Member States. The Court notes that no information is available on the extent to which such additional costs might be offset by increased management or policy efficiency.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Accession state farmers get little money from CAP

96 per cent of direct payment beneficiaries in the new member states received no more than €5,000 in the 2010 financial year according to Commission figures. The average amount in the EU-12 was €1,550 per farmer. In overall terms 80 per cent of farmers received 20 per cent of the payments. It should be noted that payments are still being phased in in the new member states.

Just over 60 per cent of European farmers received less than €1,250, although quite a few of these would be part-time farmers. Nearly 4,000 received more than the proposed cut off point of €300,000. 1,660 of them were in Germany, 390 in the Czech Reoublic, 330 in Spain and about 310 in the UK.

The Commission notes that 'the direct payments have lost their compensatory character over time' (which is how they were justified at the time of the MacSharry reforms) 'and have increasingly become a support ensuring a certain farm income stability and in combination with cross-compliance, promoting sustainable farming activity.'

If the objective is to stabilise farm incomes, Single Farm Payments are an inefficient way of doing it and a blunt instrument to promote sustainability.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

More regulation urged in French presidential election

One would not expect candidates in the French presidential election to advocate less spending on the CAP or looser regulation, but there are significant differences of emphasis.

President Sarkozy said that he would focus his efforts if re-elected on improving the competitiveness of French farmers. 'Farmers are entrepreneurs, they want to live from work, not from direct aid.' he said.

One might question how far the CAP in its current form encourages them to be enterprising. However, Sarko was clear that France 'would fight against all attempts to reduce the CAP budget.'

Francois Hollande said that basing aid on farm size was unfair to specialist producers who had holdings of only a few hectares. Aid should take employment on farms into account. Needless to say, some French producers would benefit.

He also said that there should be more regulation of supply, saying that there too few policy instruments and specifically regretting the phasing out of milk quotas as a regulatory tool.

Many commentators, of course, favoured getting rid of the rigidities which this system introduced and which did nothing to boost the international competitiveness of the EU's dairy sector. But then that is clearly not a concern for Hollande.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Subsidy cuts could be deeper than anticipated

The cut in single farm payment subsidies could be deeper than the anticipated four to five per cent according to Richard King of Andersons. He thinks that pressure on the EU budget could see the amount of money available through the reformed CAP reduced by twelve to fifteen per cent.

In real terms the loss would be even greater and farmers in Scotland and Wales could see bigger cuts as payments moved from an historic to a flat rate basis.

Snaller traditional family-run mixed farms were likely to be hardest hit by the cuts, as many relied on subsidy payments to get anywhere near making a profit.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Panorama programme causes controversy

A Panorama programme on Monday evening on farm subsidies has not surprisingly caused controversy: Panorama

I felt that the programme focused too much on the issue of 'sofa farmers' which admittedly makes for good journalism. If one is going to have subsidies, this arrangement is actually a second best solution as it allows farmers to convert their entitlement into a capital sum - although a bond scheme would do that more efficiently.

The programme also did not really tackle the contradictory objectives of the CAP. If it is a social policy, then it should be designed as such. But if it is intended to promote the competitiveness of EU agriculture, then it is not so inefficient to subsidise larger farmers who are generally more efficient.

Monday, March 05, 2012

14,500 farms would be hit by capping

Some 14 500 farmers or businesses in the EU could see their direct payment cut in two years’ time, new figures indicate.

Any farmer receiving a net entitlement of more than €150 000 in aid payments is likely to see their payment reduced under the Commission’s controversial proposals on aid ‘capping’. New figures from the EU, relating to 2010, reveal for the first time the extent to which farmers throughout Europe would be affected.

The figure also show that those 14 500 businesses received almost 11 per cent (€4.4 billion) of the total €39.7bn handed out to 7.79 million recipients. Around 4 000 farms got more than €300 000 each, netting more than €2.2bn between them.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Drones to police CAP?

A report has claimed that unmanned drones might be used to detect breaches of CAP subsidy rules: Drones

Satellites have been used in the past to detect attempts at fraud and they have had their successes as when a farmer tried to claim for fields located in the mid-Atlantic. However, their effectiveness can be affected by weather conditions and they do not work well in mountainous terrain.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wine reform up for grabs

Farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos has announced that a high level group is to review the 2008 wine reform: Wine

Traditional wine producing states have been unhappy about its effects but it benefitted smaller producers like the UK which saw some bureaucracy removed.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why the Indian wine market is not taking off

With its rising middle class one might expect a growing demand in India for quality wines. But the reverse is the case. Wine volumes fell 15.7 per cent between 2009 and 2010.

China offers a stark contrast. It imports 2.5m cases of Bordeaux a year. India imports only 100,000 cases of wine a year. More is sold to the Maldives which are, of course, a major destination for western tourists.

In the UK consumption per adult of wine is 27.7 litres a year; in China it is 4.5 litres a year; and in India 0.01 litre a year, the equivalent of two teaspoons. Indians also consume less beer, barely one litre per person per year, compared with 23 litres in China, slightly above the world average.

The biggest obstacle to more sales is price which is the result of a punitive tariff on imported wines and spirits of at least 150 per cent. On top of that individual states apply their own taxes which range from 30 to 100 per cent. Gujarat, a state with one of the fastest growing economies, bans the sale of alcohol altogether. Labelling requirements are another obstacle to distribution.

A bilateral trade agreement with the EU is supposed to tackle the issue but talks have been dragging on since 2007 and no deal is in prospect. Mahatma Gandhi's austere doctrine still carries some weight and the government is concerned that cheap alcohol might blight the lives of poor people.

Indian wine has not enjoyed a good reputation, although the Mogul empire in 16th century India was supplied with wine from the High Indus Valley and Afghanistan. Quality wine production has increased with the support of subsidies and low-cost loans, but this has led to an over supply problem.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

No deal before French and German elections

No deal on CAP reform will be reached until after the French election in 2012 and the German election in 2013 according to Defra minister Caroline Spelman speaking at the Oxford Conference. She also said that Britain was reaching out beyond its traditional allies in Scandinavia and the Netherlands to countries such as Slovakia and Romania to build an alliance against the 'capping' of CAP payments to large farms: CAP reform

Opinion at the Oxford Conference and in polls of farmers was sharply divided on whether British agriculture could flourish outside the EU.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

How would you spend your £200?

Each of us spends on average £200 on the Common Agricultural Policy. How would you spend your £200. Try the interactive survey here: Survey