Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Will flexibility underline common policy approach?

Will the amount of flexibility allowed in the latest CAP reform package undermine the common policy approach and create an uneven playing field in the European Union in terms of competitiveness? This is the question posed in an informative House of Commons Library briefing paper: Flexibility

The UK and Ireland have made full use of the flexibility allowed around eighty decision points to create bespoke policies, the paper finds.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Phil Hogan approved as commissioner

Phil Hogan has been approved as agriculture commissioner by a majority of over three to one in the European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. He was asked some awkward questions about his career in Irish politics, as well as some standard agricultural questions, but did not encounter the level of difficulty experienced by some candidates for commissioner roles: Phil Hogan

He said that he would review the CAP in 2016 after one year of the new policy mix with particular reference to direct payments and the arrangements on greening and ecological focus. However, he said that his immediate priority was responding to the Russian ban on the import of EU agricultural products.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Greening of CAP has been a failure

Researchers have suggested that the 'greening' of the CAP has been a failure. The latest version of the CAP is no greener than its predecessor and would fail a basic Advertising Standards Authority test in terms of its claims: No greening

The researchers conclude that it fails to encourage greater wildlife abundance or adequate protection for vulnerable habitats such as grasslands.

I would not wish to dispute the specific conclusions made. Policy instruments have often not been well designed and policy effectiveness insufficiently monitored. The sums of money available do not match the scale of the challenge, but have often not been well used.

However, one must beware of reducing environmental policy to the protection of biodiversity or landscape effects. Reducing water pollution from agricultural activities has been a key policy objective and some progress has been made. Climate change mitigation is surely the key objective, but little progress has been made, despite the contribution of modern agriculture to greenhouse gases.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The rise in farmland prices

Over the past decade farmland prices have grown at twice the rate of prime London property with good agricultural land increasing 270 per cent in value compared with a 135 per cent rise in London house prices during that time according to Savills. This makes it three times the price of farmland in North America and 15 times the price of such land in Australia, reports The Economist.

The reasons cited include limited and diminishing supply and constraints on world food supply. However, it should be pointed out that a lot of land in reach in London is bought at least in part as sporting estates which offer the additional incentives of a safe haven for money and tax breaks, such as exemption from inheritance tax after seven years.

However, of course, a lot of the demand is driven by farmers themselves. Economies of scale demand bigger units and although land can be rented, this may not offer security of tenure and often results in a patchwork quilt of land which means that time and money is taken up moving equipment around, not to mention complaints about slow moving agricultural vehicles on the roads.

What this means is that it is now very difficult to get into farming on your account unless you inherit a farm or a large pot of money. This has been exacerbated by the decline of county council entry level smallholdings. This means that farming is deprived of people who might bring in a fresh perspective and innovative ideas.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Farm commissioner job goes to Ireland

With outgoing agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos not re-nominated by Romania, the role has gone to Ireland's Phil Hogan. As this report makes clear, it is a decision likely to be welcomed by farmers: Hogan

The Irish Farmers' Association have certainly welcomed the appointment, implying that it will offer new opportunities for them to exert influence and secure better deals for farmers: Irish welcome

This report suggests that he has been none too popular in his role as environment minister in Ireland, although it does describe Brussels rather colourfully as a 'dross magnet': Ministerial record

The farm commissioner role often goes to a small member state with strong agricultural interests and it has, of course, been occupied by Ireland before, most notably by Ray MacSharry who brought about a significant reform of the CAP with long-lasting effects.

This article makes the interesting point that Ciolos failed to make sufficient progress on the integration of agricultural and environmental policy which is a clear direction of travel. It also notes that a central flaw of the CAP is the fragmented nature of the management and control systems: Environmental policy

Friday, August 22, 2014

Agricultural policy outside the EU

There has been relatively little discussion so far of what kind of agricultural policy the UK might have if it left the EU and hence the CAP. Agricultural economist and CAP expert Alan Swinbank has been trying to stimulate debate on this issue, but so far with little success. His latest effort is in the journal EuroChoices.

He notes, 'Successive British governments have repeatedly argued for more radical reform of the CAP than the EU has been willing to accept ... To what extent these aspirations would translate into a reduction of support for British farmers, and a greater emphasis on the provision of environmental public goods, should the UK exit the EU is open to question ... British farmers might bitterly complain that they faced an uneven playing field as their competitors were better able to remain in business as a result of more generous Pillar 1 payments subsidising their farming activities.'

Swinbank also poses the question: 'Could a WTO compatible agri-food trade agreements be negotiated with its former EU partners, or would Irish and Brazilian beef face the same tariff barriers on imports into the British market?'

My initial thinking has been that the single farm (soon to be basic) payment should continue during a transitional period if the UK left the EU, but at a somewhat reduced percentage of the current rate, e.g., 90 per cent, 85 per cent, 80 per cent over three years. However, there is danger that this could become set in stone and we would be left with an historically determined form of subsidy rather than debating and re-thinking the pattern of support.

As Swinbank argues, the alternatives do need to be spelt out so that voters can make an informed choice in any referendum.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Big changes at ComAgri

With the extension of co-decision to agricultural policy by the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee has become a much more important player in the decision-making process. It has tended to contain MEPs from agricultural and rural constituencies, or with interests in the sector, and in that sense has sometimes been a brake on reform, with the chair in 2009-14 insisting that the CAP budget be maintained in real terms with more money for farmers and more flexibility on how they spent this publicly funded largesse: Handouts

The committee's composition in the new Parliament has changed substantially, creating more uncertainty about its stance, although it will be chaired by the centre-right EPP. ComAgri’s political breakdown is based on the election results. The European People’s Party (EPP) came first so gets 13 of the 45 seats, with the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) next with nine seats and the other groups getting between three and five each.

A number of old hands who played key ComAgri roles in 2009-2014 are back, including former chair Paolo De Castro (S&D), Albert Dess (EPP) and Jim Nicholson (ECR). Notable absentees include ALDE’s George Lyon and the S&D’s Luis Manuel Capoulas Santos.

Of the 45 new ComAgri members, 23 were re-elected to the Parliament, of whom 20 sat on ComAgri in 2009-2014. New to ComAgri but not to the Parliament are Portugal’s Nuno Melo (EPP), the UK’s Richard Ashworth (ECR) and Dane Jens Rohde (ALDE). The other 22 are newly-elected to the Parliament. This reflects dramatic changes to the Parliament’s political make-up brought by the elections, with eurosceptic, anti-EU parties significantly increasing their MEP numbers – as well as some left-wing anti-EU parties.

The expanded Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group has increased its ComAgri representation from two to three MEPs. Back is Stuart Agnew from the UK’s Independence Party (UKIP), which wants the UK out of the EU altogether, but has a poor record of voting and committee attendance in the Parliament. UKIP's position is that UK farmers would then receive a version of what has been the Single Farm (to become Basic) Payment, but that it would be capped to limit the amount going to larger farmers, something the UK has always fought within the EU. Agnew is joined this time by Giulia Moi and Marco Zullo from Italy’s Five Star Movement – a populist party born out of a protest movement led by a comedian.

One of the three non-attached members, Edouard Ferrand, is from France’s far-right Front National, which increased its Parliament MEPs from three to 24. The FN is a critic of the CAP, lamenting the loss of control on farming decisions and arguing that the CAP has not helped agricultural earnings or done enough to protect French farming.

As for the Greens/EFA group, outspoken French MEP José Bové and German Martin Häusling are joined by new MEPs Bronis Ropé from Lithuania and Jordi Sebastià Talavera from Spain’s Compromis party. Bové was once involved in physically dismantling a MacDonalds that had set up in a cheese producing region and is a staunch opponent of GM.

The left-wing alliance GUE-NGL has four brand new MEPs on ComAgri. Two from Ireland – Matt Carthy and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan – are joined by Antje Anna Helena Hazekamp from the Netherlands’ Party for the Animals (PvdD) and Spain’s María Lidia Senra Rodríguez. We might expect more attempts to pursue animal protection issues.

Ciolos odds on favourite for farm commissioner

Dacian Ciolos looks like he is the front runner for re-appointment for a second term as farm and rural development commissioner. He has not offended any major players among the member states and has been careful not to upset the French, being perceived originally as a French-approved appointment. He is strongly backed by his own government with farming being a more important part of their economy than in most member states.

From a reform perspective, he has been a disappointment, but that is not surprising. It is difficult to get reform through in the face of the vested interests of member states. The farm share of the budget is dropping, but relatively little has been done to make the CAP responsive to climate change.

There is an argument for continuity for the CAP, as Cioloș would be able to oversee mid-term reviews of ‘greening’ and other 2014-2020 reforms that he proposed back in 2011. But 'continuity' can be another way of saying 'business as usual'. The inefficiencies of the CAP are bound to be an agenda item in any referendum debate in the UK.

Ireland is always keen to get the farm commissioner's post and has done well in the role in the past (think of the MacSharry reforms). The Republic's Phil Hogan, who has served as Irish environment, community and local government minister since March 2011, is being advanced as a candidate. Hogan, from the Fine Gael party that is in coalition government with the Irish Labour Party, also has experience in EU issues and is being backed by fellow Fine Gael politician and MEP Mairead McGuinness. McGuinness, from the EPP group and an active member of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee (ComAgri) throughout the CAP reform process, is now a vice-president of the Parliament.

There are a couple of dark horses and one former Spanish agriculture minister Miguel Arias Cañete, since elected to the new European Parliament. Yet the chances for Italian Socialist (S&D) MEP Paolo de Castro, who was ComAgri chair in 2009-2014, appear slimmer.

Although there is much horse trading to come, Ciolos must be the odds on favourite.

Getting a start in farming

If you don't have a farm to inherit, getting a start in farming is difficult. The capital costs of setting up, equipping and stocking a viable farm are huge. For some the practical route is to become a farm manager, but then you are working for someone else.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are people from a non-farming background who want to become farmers. I say 'surprisingly' because it is hard physical work, requires a wide range of skills including dealing with a lot of paper work and the returns are often poor and uncertain. There are some jobs I could never do and farmer, actor and politician are top of the list. But I appreciate that there are those who have a real and genuine commitment.

One route in has been through county council farms. These are not usually large and may have to be combined with rented land to be viable. When I have interviewed such farmers, the off farm work of their partner (or even the farmer) has often been a key contribution to the household budget. They tend to be livestock farms, raising beef or sheep or a dairy enterprise. Smaller arable farms have been squeezed as yields have flat lined for some thirty years and economies of scale have becoming increasingly important in that sector.

However, cash strapped county councils have been selling off their estates. Since 1964 the council farms estate across England and Wales has shrunk by 37 per cent to 111,650 hectares in 2012. Total holdings have fallen by 79 per cent to just 3,442 as they have been combined to try and make them more viable.

Average size has gone up from 10.9 hectares to 32 hectares, but arguably that is little better than a large smallholding. In some cases, part of the holding has been sold off for housing, sometimes the most productive land. When councils sell holdings off, tenants can purchase at market value, but there is no way that a farm of, say, 125 acres with a book value of £1.2m could support a large mortgage.

I don't think county farms are the way forward for the future, but the measures taken under the CAP don't help much either.

Finally, can I give my nephew Deiniol Williams a plug. He has left the family farm where his brother will carry on as, I think, the eighth generation. But he has started a ceramics business and uses a kiln on the farm: Ceramics

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Wellcome result for Co-op

The Co-operative Group has sold its farm business to the Wellcome Trust for £249m. This is indeed a welcome result as it ensures a benevolent owner for the business which takes a long-term view and shares many of the ethical standards of the Co-op. As Danny Truell, its chief investment officer, put it, the trust values 'responsible stewardship over quick profits'.

Dedicated to driving improvements in human and animal health, the trust is the world's second highest spending charitable foundation. In effect, they function as another research council for the UK. I have had some loose association with their veterinary work and I have been favourably impressed.

The trust already has significant agricultural holdings in Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Cheshire. It rarely sells businesses once it has acquired them.

The Co-op estate is made up of nearly 40,000 acres of land, 15 farms, three pack houses, and almost 130 residential and commercial properties. Its apple orchards at Tillington in Herefordshire were purchased in 2008, thereby preserving more than 1,000 rare varieties of British apples that were threatened with extinction.

This is one of Britain's largest land sales in decades and one of the largest global deals of its kind. It ends an association between the troubled Co-op and agriculture that dates back more than 100 years.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Call for major changes to food and farming policy

A coalition of NGOs including the RSPB and the National Trust working with the Centre for Food Research have called for UK food and farming policy to be reoriented around ecosystems and the promotion of healthy food in a report entitled Square Meal.. You can read more about the report and download it here: Square Meal

They state in a press release, 'The organisations involved have joined forces to highlight the overwhelming evidence that demonstrates the need for major changes to national food and farming policy. Square Meal aims to start a collaborative discussion in the run up to next year’s general election and to influence future government policies on these issues. [One suspects that the report is really addressed at a possible Labour Government]. It calls for stronger government leadership in planning the future use of land, food policy, farming and conservation in England and for wider public engagement on issues that affect the whole of society.'

One interesting question is how far these issues are within the domain of national politics. The increasing demand for a sugar tax clearly is, but many practical farming decisions are influenced by the CAP. This has a substantial emphasis on protecting the environment, but does not tackle health related issues.

On the CAP, the report says, 'The Common Agricultural Policy spends €1 billion a week of taxpayers’ money across the EU31– a vast amount that could be doing so much more to support and incentivise those farmers doing the right thing for society and the environment and push up standards across the board. But only a tiny proportion of this expenditure represents good value for money by being targeted at sustainable farming. Much of the rest ends up in the coffers of big business or capitalised in agricultural land prices, delivering little more than private profit or too often is supporting unsustainable farming systems, stifling innovation and hampering competitiveness.'

It is open to question whether large farms do stifle innovation, particularly technological innovation. The tone of the report is very critical of the market economy and praises regulation. It may be, however, that some of its objectives could be achieved within a market economy, or at least by using market based policy instruments. The UK's track record at exercising leadership on the CAP, which is called for in the report, has not been impressive so far, despite valiant efforts to secure reform, in part because of the vested interests of member states.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The EU, Britain and agriculture

Defra has published the 'balance of competences' report on the relationship between the EU and Britain in the area of agriculture. At first glance there is a lot of 'x stakeholder says this' and 'y' stakeholder says that, but it will certainly repay further study. The full report can be downloaded here: Balance of competences

The executive summary states: 'The debate on EU competence for agriculture as set out in the evidence submitted was strongly supportive of EU competence in relation to the Single Market for agricultural goods and to the EU’s role in negotiating global trade deals for agricultural goods. In relation to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), there was a recognition that it had changed significantly from its post-war origins, particularly over the past 30 years. The most damaging and trade-distorting elements had been removed and the UK had played a significant role in driving reform.' In short, things have been worse, they have got somewhat better, we deserve a pat at the back for that and anyway there is no alternative.

The summary continues, 'However, respondents put forward evidence that, notwithstanding the reforms, the CAP’s objectives remained unclear and that the criteria for allocation of funding were irrational and disconnected from what the policy should be aiming to achieve. The majority of respondents argued that the CAP remains misdirected, cumbersome, costly and bureaucratic. Environmental organisations advanced detailed evidence about how historically, market intervention and direct payments had led to negative impacts on biodiversity and the farmed environment. The advent of agri-environment schemes had been beneficial across Europe and provided a regime for conservation that might not otherwise exist.' In short, this is a badly designed and implemented policy.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

New farm minister owns wellies

Liz Truss is the second woman MP from South-West Norfolk to hold the post of farm minister. Her predecessor Gillian Shephard held the portfolio from 1993 to 1994. There has been a long line of agriculture ministers from East Anglia.

Farm leaders wanted to keep Owen Paterson in post, but a lack of wellies during the floods undermined his reputation. His tough line on the badger cull earned plaudits from farmers, but leaving aside opposition from wildlife campaigners and many scientists, the cull failed on its own terms, targets not being met. Paterson then rather unfortunately complained that the badgers had moved the goalposts.

Some commentators, such as the Spectator think that he was targeted by pressure groups. This view has been pursued by Paterson who argues that he was the victim of a powerful self-serving environmental lobby he termed the 'green blob': Green blob . The Economist suggested that he should never have been appointed in the fisrt place.

As far as Farmers Weekly is concerned, Truss does have one of the main qualifications for the post, her own pair of willies, white to judge from the accompanying photograph, thus appearing stylish while avoiding the green colour favoured by urbanites in the countryside. She also takes a hard line on badgers.

The real difficulty for any Defra minister, apart from the fact that most agriculture policy is decided in Brussels, is Defra itself. It is a real mish mash of a department, uncertain whether its main role is to reform the CAP, boost the rural economy (of which agriculture is an important but only one part) or protect the environment. No wonder it has already finished off two ministers, but Ms Truss may be made of sterner stuff.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Farmers and Scottish independence

Some farmers are passionate about Scottish independence out of personal conviction, but many are cool about the idea. They are uncertain whether it will bring the claimed benefits, particularly given the importance of English markets.

The Scottish National Party argues that Westminster has done a poor job of representing Scotland's farming interests in Brussels. As a result, they argue, Scotland has missed out on billion of pounds in EU subsidies. However, others argue that lower levels of per acre subsidy reflect the low farming value of much of the land in western Scotland.

Farmers account for just 65,000 people out of a total Scottish electorate of four million, but both sides in the referendum debate see them as opinion leaders in rural communities and exerting a influence in the key food and drink industry.

Meanwhile, both sides in the referendum debate are rushing to support EU 'protected geographical status' for Ayrshire early new potatoes. This status has already been secured for Arbroath smokies, Scottish salmon and Stornoway black pudding.

There is a broad income range in Scottish farms with the gap between the richest and the poorest farms amounting to £102,000. The bottom 25 per cent of farms saw a loss of £14,000 in 2013 while the top quartile averaged a farm business income (effectively net profit) of £88,000.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Green peas lead to row

New CAP rules require that large arable farmers ensure that five per cent of their land is set aside as an ecological focus area (EFA). The Government has caused controversy by deciding that one of the five options available to farmers to meet the crops will be planting nitrogen fixing crops such as field beans and peas.

Environmental groups argued that this would bring no wildlife benefits, while the RSPB branded the policy 'a wasted opportunity for the environment'. However, Defra minister Owen Paterson defended it in terms of the imperative of food security. For the NFU Meurig Raymond said that it represented 'a pragmatic solution to a very difficult situation.' In other words, smart lobbying by the NFU.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The oddities of the wine market

Jens Beckert, Jorg Rossel and Patrick Schenk at Cologne's Max Planck Institute have been looking at variations in the price of wine. Or more specifically, as the title of their paper states 'Wine as a Cultural Product: Symbolic Capital and Price Formation in the Wine Field'. For their study they analysed data from 110 wineries and 1,071 wines (it's not clear if they sampled any of them) as well as data on wine consumers in four German cities.

There are some real oddities in the wine market. Even expensive wines don't cost more than €10 a bottle to produce but, although chemically the same, a bottle of wine can cost 1.99 euros or 300 euros. 'These price differentials are justified by alleged quality differences between the wines. However ... it turns out that the price differences are largely unrelated to different production costs and to the sensual experience wine connoisseurs report when tasting the wine in a bland tasting ... even experts are not able to differentiate between wines based on objective characteristics and cannot rank wines according to their price'. Moreover, each time a new vintage comes along, the taste changes.

There are some generalisations one can make about price. Wines made of high status grape varieties (Riesling, Pinot) are usually more expensive. Dry wine is more expensive than sweet and semi-dry wine. Red wine is more expensive than white and rosé. Older wine is usually more expensive than that of a younger age.

Wine producers can develop symbolic capital that can be turned into profit. Wine producers that produce wines that are 'difficult' to drink because the consumer must first learn to appreciate them and 'work' on developing taste can accumulate such capital. This sounds like a formula for the consumer to be conned and a passport for pretentiousness - which does bring to mind an advert currently shown on British television in which a wine buff is mocked for such pretension.

It's an interesting paper, but there is relatively little about supply and demand which is always a key factor in any market, even one as unusual as that for wine.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cows to get climate change fix

If it was April Fools Day one would think this was a joke, but a White House climate change initiative is searching for a 'cow of the future' whose greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by anti-methane pills, burp scanners and gas backpacks.

Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas with a global warming effect that is twenty times greater than carbon dioxide and cows emit a lot of it. A typical cow emits 250-300 litres of methane a day. The 88 million cattle in the US produce more of it than landfill sites, natural gas leaks or fracking. However, contrary to a common misconception, 97 per cent of the methane gas is released by the front end through burps, not through emissions from the back end.

Supplements such as basil can cut methane production in cows. In Argentina, scientists have created backpacks that collect gas via tubes plugged into cows' stomachs. That sounds as if it would raise animal welfare issues to me.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Climate change report emphasises food supply effects

The latest UN report on climate change emphasises food supply effects: Climate change.

The report argues that climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields both regionally and on a global basis. The effects of climate change on two other important food crops, rice and soya beans, have been smaller in the most important producing countries. There may be some positive effects on crops in cooler climates in future. However, the overall outlook for wheat, rice and maize production in tropical and temperate regions is expected to be more negative than positive.

The last assessment by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 was more sanguine about how climate change was impacting on food production. Unfortunately, the suggestion that the CAP might incorporate a climate change pillar was rapidly dropped in the last set of reform negotiations.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The politics of grains

Few commodities are more politicised than grains. They were the first products to be covered by the Common Agricultural Policy. The US has run export subsidy schemes for them in the past. International trading houses like Cargill are involved.

Fear has gripped the wheat market with prices soaring as investors buy against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine. Concern about freezing weather in major growing areas in the US has also helped to push up prices by about 20 per cent since the end of February. Ultimately this could boost inflation by affecting prices of goods in the shops.

The so-called Black Sea grain region of Russia, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan accounts for a fifth of world exports. Exports from this area are particularly important in North Africa and the Middle East.

In the longer run, production in Ukraine could be affected by higher prices for inputs because of the weakness of the hryvania and difficulties for farmers in accessing finance. If Russian tanks actually came charging across the steppes of eastern Ukraine, even more disruption would occur. On the more positive side, exports of Ukranian wheat to Europe could increase.

In Britain, 'Nimbys' are using food security arguments to reinforce their case against building on 'green belt' farmland. However, it is important not to panic. Global production forecasts are of 700m tonnes, only slightly down from 709m in 2013/14.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Commodity prices under pressure

Commodity prices in agriculture are facing upwards pressure. It's nothing like the price spike of 2008, but the bearish mood that prevailed at the end of last year has disappeared. The structural pressures of increased demand and little effective increase in supply rate remain in place, even if the rate of growth in Chinese demand has weakened as the economy slows. Stocks are relatively plentiful, but demand from emerging markets is increasing.

In some cases, weather has been a factor. Dry weather has affected sugar production in Brazil, and there are concerns about dryness in India and Thailand, two leading producers. At the same time the sugar reform in the EU has had an effect. Sugar beet producers do not withdraw too hastily as it is a good break crop and they have sunk cost investments in the crop, but a 9 per cent fall in production is expected this year. Farmers in East Anglia have been complaining for some time about reduced margins. Cocoa prices have risen in anticipation of an El Nino effect in West Africa later this year.

Rising global demand is sustaining dairy prices, although the impending end of quotas in the EU may boost production and push them down again. Coffee has seen particularly big rises because of drought concerns in Brazil with prices of higher quality beans up by as much as 70 per cent. These may filter through to consumers by the end of the year.

Any price increase is particularly a concern in developing countries where food forms a much larger part of household budgets, but under conditions of austerity and reductions in real wages, consumers in developed countries are also very sensitive to food price inflation. In Britain, hard discounters such as Aldi and Lidl are undercutting mid-market retailers like Sainsbury's and Tesco. More up market retailers like Waitrose are less vulnerable, while good performance by the food arm of Marks & Spencer has offset disappointing returns in clothing.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Yes, we have no bananas

The famous song of this title dates from 1923: Bananas. Bananas have been a hot topic in agricultural trade negotiations: I have a book on the subject on my shelves. They are an enjoyable fruit which provides an energy boost and are the biggest fruit of the planet in terms of production volume. During the Second World War they were not imported and youngsters didn't know how to eat them when they first encountered them. I can remember them being on ration.

Bananas have been controversial because they are largely produced in the Global South and exported in large quantities to advanced countries (although most of them are consumed in the producer countries or nearby). The trade has been dominated by a few large companies and margins for producers have been squeezed. There are also big fungus disease problems on the horizon, although mainly confined to Asia at present (also fortunately it is not wind borne and scientists are attempting to find means of control). The EU only produces bananas in relatively small quantities in Greece and the Canary Islands.

Now there has been a back to the future deal in terms of a merger between Chiquita of the US and Dublin-based Fyffes. The latter company dates from the late 19th century when it was set up to grow bananas in Jamaica for the British market. After hurricane damage, it was bought by the US-based United Fruit Company, but they got into trouble after their involvement in the Guatemalan coup in 1954. That didn't stop them sending their banana boats to help in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.

United Fruit was taken over by United Brands in the 1970s and changed its name to Chiquita. Fyffes was sold to Fruit Importers of Ireland in 1986. Chiquita has tend to focus on margins and quality, while Fyffes has been more of a mass market brand. Now they have come together in a $1 billion dollar merger designed to address declining profit margins. The new company will be called ChiquitaFyffes.

European retailers are increasingly using bananas as loss leaders and forcing producers and distributors to absorb wholesale cost increases. The Fairtrade Foundation has warned that the merger is like to squeeze producers further, although it will account for only 14 per cent of the world market, but 30 per cent of the European market. No challenge on competition law grounds is thought likely.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Is milk white gold?

There is currently a supermarket war going on using milk as a loss leader. Farmers have been reassured that it will not affect the price that they are paid, but some are concerned about the treatment of liquid milk as a commodity. With the impending lifting of quotas, many EU farmers, not least in the Netherlands, are planning expansion. But in a world that could be awash with milk, despite increasing demand in China, milk could turn out to be 'white gold' but fool's good.

Moreover, any country expanding its production will be up against New Zealand which has an ideal climate for dairy production and years of accumulated expertise in production and marketing. But is New Zealand really the Saudi Arabia of milk?

A recent report in the Financial Times struck a note of caution: White Gold.

The Pink 'Un noted that since 1980, the dairy herd has more than doubled to 6.5m cows while the number of sheep has halved. At least 300,000 hectares of land has been transferred to dairy use from other types of farming and forestry over the past decade, causing a jump in agricultural land prices. The dairy industry is driving the boom in capital investment with NZ$1bn dairy plants under construction along with other spin-off infrastructure projects.

But there are risks in being so dependent on a single sector which now accounts for almost a third of total exports, particularly when it is a commodity. It makes New Zealand look like a modern version of a company town. Some see parallels with Ireland before the financial crash with an economy based on debt and credit, low savings rates and current account deficits. Irish dairy farmers prospered under the CAP, some of them building new mansions with porticos. They survived the crash with the CAP providing a safety net which Kiwi farmers do not have.

Different versions of food futures

Earlier this week I went to a very interesting workshop on future global food systems. As is inevitably the case, two different versions of the future emerged.

One view is that in order to feed a growing world population (of which anything between 1 billion and 3.5 billion are under nourished and 0.83 billion underweight) we shall have to continue to rely on intensive systems of food production and make greater use of new technology.

An alternative view, which was developed rather more in the discussion, was that we were going to hell in a handcart and the present system of production is unsustainable in terms, for example, of the demands it is making on soil and water and its contribution to climate change. We rely on too narrow a range of plant and livestock species and overlook crops which could be safely grown several times in one year (although whether people find some of these crops palatable is another question).

Of course, how one moves to a different system is a more challenging question and it struck me that there was an element of naivety in some of the suggestions put forward. Urban agriculture such as growing mint in a suburb of Rotterdam may have educational benefits, but it is not going to start to feed large cities. If diversity is the enemy of capitalism, as was argued, how is one going to get round that given the structural and lobbying power of big business? How can one cope with the power of supermarkets which tend to make cosmetic changes in their offer to reflect concerns? One answer that was suggested was to convert consumers into citizens in relation to food, but that has its challenges.

I would suggest that sustainable intensification offers a possible way forward. I know that it is greeted with scepticism both by environmental lobbyists, who see it as a stalking horse for GMO, and by farmers who tell me that they don't understand what it is. What it involves is an acknowledgment is that we are going to have continue with intensive farming (although not everywhere) but it has to be done in a more sustainable way by using inputs in a much more careful way. Drone technology, for example, opens up new possibilities in precision farming, making it possible to avoid the over use of fertilisers.

One also has to recognise that business is not a homogeneous entity signed up to a common agenda and that some businesses are concerned about the possible impacts of unmitigated climate change, notably the insurance industry which plays a key role in the Aldersgate Group which is a coalition of businesses, NGOs and others: Aldersgate .

Where I would agree with many of the speakers is that the analysis of power relations is of crucial importance in understanding how systems of food production operate.

Friday, February 28, 2014

So, farewell then, CWS Farms

Faced with a £2 billion deficit, the Co-op is to sell off its farms. The group now regards them as 'non-core' and thinks that they distracted from its other activities. Most of the farms are arable, although there is also some soft fruit production.

Now is a good time to sell as farmland prices are rising and these are good farms in attractive locations which have been well looked after, although there have been some expressions of concern that their arrival on the market may depress prices (but I think that is unlikely). There are still individuals with £30m or more in cash willing to buy farms in the UK. They could be worth £350m, although presumably would be sold separately. Some of the farms are thought to have development value. They are located in Cambridgeshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Leicestershire and Yorkshire. There are also farms north of the border in Aberdeenshire and Perthshire.

CWS was, I think, Britain's biggest farmer, certainly after Sentry Farming disappeared from view, although there are other contract farming companies, notably Velcourt: Velcourt . Farmers Weekly commented in an editorial that 'The C0pop's exit from farming is in part an acknowledgment of the high capital requirement of modern commercial agriculture relative to the returns.'

The CWS owns 15 farms that cover 19,830 hectares (49,000 acres). Only 2 per cent of production ends up in the Co-op's own supermarkets, with cereals sales to bread manufacturers accounting for 70 per cent of production. The Co-op has owned farms since the 19th century and had argued that they provided an edge over its competitors as consumers were becoming more concerned about the provenance of food (in practice only some consumers).

When I was growing up in London in the 1950s we got virtually everything from the Co-op from milk and bread to clothes. The return for customers was a declining 'divi' whilst the stories failed to modernise as competitors strengthened their offer. The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, then the biggest in the country, was known locally as 'Rob All Customers Slowly.'

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Transatlantic trade talks hit trouble over agriculture

The US-EU trade talks are running into trouble on a number of fronts, but predictably agriculture is proving to be a particularly difficult issue. The farm lobbies on both sides of the Atlantic are active and influential and the EU feels a need to respond to the concerns of its citizens on such subjects as GM crops and hormone-raised beef. For its part, the US sees this as protectionism under another guise.

Food safety is an area where there is a particular gap with the EU sticking to the 'precautionary principle' which can justify intervention in the absence of much in the way of hard scientific evidence while the US has a more lenient 'risk assessment model' which only bans products if there is a known risk. The EU is about to approve a GM strain of corn/maize, but that is after a decade of debate and six scientific studies. It remains to be seen how much is actually planted.

The fundamental problem is that the public in the two entities have different attitudes on issues of this kind and these are difficult to overcome, particularly when the EU is engaged in a constant search for democratic legitimacy and popular support. Standing up to big US corporations marketing allegedly dangerous products and processes is one way of doing that.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Large farms may abandon basic payment

It is being reported that some large arable farms are considering abandoning the basic payment (the successor to the single farm payment) because of the 'three crop' rule: Three crops

I do think that this rule is a typical example in the CAP of a possibly laudable objective leading to a policy instrument that is deficient. It arose out of a desire to curb the landscape and biodiversity effects of monoculture. However, at one time there was an implicit view in the EU that some parts of member states would be farmed in a way that maximized productivity. Requiring farmers to grow three different crops undermines this and, in my view, is an unwarrantable intereference in their freedom to make their own commercial decisions. I would also question whether it really achieves that much in the way of 'greening'.

Whether farmers would give up the basic payment is an interesting quetion. It can be a very substantial amount for some large-scale arable farmers, but others receive relatively small sums. However, in many cases it is the difference between making a profit and making a loss. The real hope must be that some progress will be made in reducing the impact of this policy instrument.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Adapting farming to climate change

One of the predictions of climate change is that extreme weather events will increase in frequency and although one has to be careful about generalising from a particular weather pattern, there is some evidence to support that hypothesis given the wettest winter in the UK for 250 years. It would seem that additional warmth is being absorbed in the oceans. It is not so unusual for the Atlantic to be a storm factory at this time of the year, but the destination of the storms is changing with the jetstream diverted south.

There is a growing recognition, even on the political right, that denial is no longer plausible and that one needs an intelligent discussion about policy options: Talking about the Climate

In particular there are questions about how one can sustain productive farming under these conditions in such areas as the Somerset Levels. Adapting to the particular features of the local climate is important and here is a good example from the Isles of Scilly: Churchtown Farm

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Agri-environmental schemes after 2014

Not everyone's topic, but if you are affected in any way or just interested there is some useful information here, courtesy of the excellent RELU Landbridge project: Agri-environmental schemes

Monday, January 13, 2014

Agricultural policy outside the EU

Whether or not the UK will leave the European Union remains to be seen, but it is a sufficiently serious prospect for it to be worth thinking about its implications for agricultural policy.

What one would probably have is a continuation of a version of the CAP at the national level. One of the constraints here is that the UK would still be a member of the World Trade Organisation and any agricultural subsidies it provided would have to be compatible with WTO rules. Indeed, it could be argued that recent changes to the CAP have been driven too much by the need to provide subsidies in a form that can demonstrate that they are compatible with the 'green box'/non-trade-distorting requirements of the WTO. Hence, the policy instruments may have been influenced too much by that requirement.

Within the discussion of the 'balance of competences' review of the CAP, one issue is how much 'renationalisation' there has been of the CAP. Certainly, there has been quite a considerable amount of recoupling which gives quite a lot of discretion to member states or their regional governments, but the basic principles of the CAP remain intact.

In any case, some would argue that the term 'renationalisation' is an inappropriate or old fashioned one. What has happened rather is the maintenance of a common policy design with national flexibility in policy implementation. Some argue that as the goals of the CAP have become more complicated, and in particular taken on a greater public goods/environmental emphasis, there has been a recasting of the form of the CAP (although it is possible to exaggerate the extent of this). What this requires is policy instruments that allow diversity of implementation in member states (but not to an extent that would satisfy Eurosceptics). It is, however, worth bearing in mind that a lot of policies affecting agriculture are nationally determined, particularly taxation and inheritance law and planning regulations.

It may be that the CAP can be characterised as a means of tackling the market failures associated with land management (but arguably a rather inefficient means of doing so). However, for some member states the occupation of land could be a key objective to prevent rural depopulation and secure the ecosystem benefits of farmed land.

One also comes up against the problem of a low level of competence in effective policy design and delivery. That is not a problem confined to the CAP, but is a general challenge for the EU and for member state governments, but it is particularly evident in relation to the CAP.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Cost of farmland likely to continue to rise

Knight Frank's farmland index reported a 7 per cent increase in prices in 2013 to reach an average of just under £6,700 per acre, and further growth is expected in 2014. Large blocks of investment grade arable land now regularly sell for over £10,000 an acre in the UK. In the past ten years, average values have increased by 22 per cent. This compares with a rise of 58 per cent for the FTSE 100 and 132 per cent for prime central London residential property.

Investors favour farmland because of its stability and tax incentives. A shortage of supply is also driving up prices, while growing global demand for food makes it an attractive long-term investment.