Is it time we stopped subsidising agriculture?
If foot and mouth disease has done one thing , it has drawn attention to the role of farmers and tourism in our economy and how government economic development policy should deal with them in the future.
Many people will have been shocked at the apparent cavalier way farmers transport cattle across the country. However many more taxpayers are surprised to learn that farming represents just 1.5% of gross domestic product, while tourism, which is being sacrificed to the commercial interests of farming contributes many times more.
In most areas the countryside economy no longer relies on farming and many farmers operate like industrialists. The main difference seems to be that farmers produce meat and grain rather than widgets, and they have an insatiable appetite for subsidy that outweighs the rest of British industry put together.
Given the constant pleading for ever more subsidies by farmers, including the NFU’s Andrew Clark saying, ‘as an immediate measure we are looking for compensation’. (Independent 8 April). Many people are beginning to question this need for compensation for farmers, when compensation was not forthcoming for industrial communities that suffered massive job losses in the 1980’s.
Given the ever increasing industrial nature of British farming, there seems little justification for treating it any different from other declining industries such as mining, ship building and steel. Perhaps the first thing we should do is treat farming like any other failing industry. In doing so we can create a farming industry that is both competitive and truly meets the environmental standards that the market requires.
This page contains two essays with opposing views on this matter.
Are Farming Subsidies Killing The Countryside?
By Nicholas Newman
Despite the institutionalised bailouts they have depended on for decades, many farmers today still pretend to be the rugged independent businessmen, when in fact for many this image is far from reality, instead scores of farmers depend for a major part of their income from taxpayers. The recent protests by the farming lobby’s so-called Countryside Alliance, is not really about the care and protection of the country way of life, but about protecting the welfare checks that slip regularly through many farmers’ letterboxes. Every week farmers come up with new justifications for sending our hard earned taxes into their bank accounts, in order to support their own lifestyles. Instead of leaving agriculture, many are trying to justify their existence as park keepers or rangers of the land, even though past experience would suggest that many are not suited for this role.
Sadly as Duff Hart-Davis of The Independent, has pointed out that, for many country-side residents the current rural subsidies are directed at the wrong targets. Instead of tackling the issues faced by the majority of rural inhabitants, subsidies are targeted disproportionately towards the big farmers, such as the so called wheat barons of East Anglia, who in no real sense of the word, need any of the bounty of our taxes to keep them in business. At present some 80% of the €42.8 billion (£27 billion in 2001) Common Agricultural Policy budget, goes to the pockets of the largest and richest farmers that make up 20% of Europe's farming population, thats nearly 50% the EU's total budget. These self same wheat barons, that have transformed much of East Anglia into a Western prairie rather than the landscape that Constable made famous. This changing of farming practices in the countryside into prairies as a result of subsidies has resulted in the decline in rural employment leading to economic decline of rural areas.
According to Clark Williams of the Washington based Environmental Working Group (CEWG), this addiction to subsidies by the agricultural industry in both Europe and America is sabotaging efforts to reform the taxpayer subsidised farming system on both continents and is causing much economic damage and environmental degrada-tion in rural areas. Some analysts have suggested that main cause of resistance to re-form of the present system is the need by politicians to maintain what is seen as the key agricultural vote, which is seen as vital to their re-election prospects.
Unfortunately, many European Governments as demonstrated by the Treaty of Nice are still too hesitant to take the necessary decisions, of changing the system of subsidies, even though this approach would be the best for protecting the natural rather than man-made agricultural environment that is the countryside today.
However according to EU figures, up to two thirds of Europe’s subsidy dependent farmers would go out of business according to EU figures, this would damage the re-election prospects of many politicians in marginal seats throughout Europe. In Britain by the closure of rural shops and post offices, in much of rural Spain, Italy and France by depopulation, we need to start taking an intellectually honest approach to farm policy, where such subsidies are seen as truly rural support payments are targeted at regenerating poor rural areas.
As to the future, what can be expected is that both American and European Governments to increasingly adopt the approach of paying farmers to not produce a crop in some form or other in the exchange for dole money, e.g. as with the ‘Set Aside’(a scheme that pays farmers to leave the land idle and grow weeds. It may seem barmy, but it stops farmers creating a glut) program in Europe. At present it is unclear what the taxpayer is getting for his or her money, except for blocked rural footpaths, flooding induced by farming practices, polluted water supplies, loss of wildlife etc.
This dependence on such payouts experienced by European farmers, is according to the Timothy Egan of the New York Times, no different in USA, despite the notion of rugged individuals. In fact there are at least 1.6 million farmers receiving at least $13,000 on average in income support per year, with many individuals receiving gov-ernment subsidy checks of $280,000 per year.
In Europe the EU through the CAP is subsidising each full-time farmer on average by £12,000 a year, thats costing each family in the EU an extra £20 a week. If this was not enough criminal elements have taken advantage of the CAP system through claims for non-existent olive groves to scams on flax production. These past abuses have been due to lax monitoring by the responsible agencies involved.
Adding to Europe's problem's, due in part to the failure to reform the CAP include the massive compensation bill for the foot and mouth outbreak; BSE; decline in beef consumption, trade embargos and barriers; food mountains and the accession of Poland (where nearly a quarter of the labour force are farmers, barely out of the horse and cart stage).
Unless there is reform of the present system of taxpayer subsidies, many declining rural areas will continue to fail, sustainable farming will continue to struggle, due to a policy targeted at supporting farming business interests rather than declining rural communities.
For further information about the at the following website:
To contact the Environmental Working Group at the following web site:http://www.ewg.org/