November 19, 2003


Virtual agriculture: The romantic view that food production should not be subject to normal market rules is bad news for the developing world and for our own countryside (Richard H Webb, November 2003, Prospect uk)

The primacy of agricultural development as a route to progress is a recurring theme in 20th-century history. After 1945, the great powers embarked on ambitious programmes to ensure food security, rural employment and social stability. The Chinese and Soviet nightmares cost tens of millions of lives between them, and destroyed countless local cultures - and for all that, were only partly successful at the most basic task of feeding their people. Today those programmes have been largely abandoned.

By contrast, the American and western European projects achieved their goals within a decade or so. The problem with them is that they have not been abandoned. Over the past 30 years, the common agricultural policy (CAP) has skewed the European vision, and continues to account for half of the EU's total budget. This, despite the fact that the proportion of Europeans working the land has declined from a fifth to a fifteenth. The US system, though different in structure, is on a similar scale.

So why is it that in Europe we can contemplate an end to subsidies for shipbuilding and steel manufacture, but not for sugar and starch production? Why do we abandon Welsh coalminers to the chill winds of competition, but subsidise Welsh hill farmers? Why is it that cotton and tobacco remain "strategic" crops, but that we are dependent on the outside world for most of our electronics? The list goes on. We have ferocious planning regulations to protect our landscape, but we let the farmers off. We grudge the Argentine gaucho his living, but do not care that China has more manufacturing jobs than Europe.

Why do we continue to regard agriculture as a special case? This highly technological, highly systematised commercial activity remains immune to the normal disciplines and incentives of regulated market economies, in a way that, say, the building trade does not. If that seems like an odd comparison, consider that both industries employ millions in enterprises ranging from big business to casual labour, shape our physical and aesthetic environment and provide basic human needs. It is as if we really believe that the practice of farming ennobles the landscape it occupies and the people who work it; as if we really believed that we cannot rely on foreigners for our food; as if there were a food crisis so urgent that only a heroic centralised effort could avert it.

When our current subsidy structure was designed in the late 1950s, some of the above did still apply. National politics helped to ease the structure into place. In Italy small farmers had to be favoured to shore up the anti-communist vote, and in Germany to secure the support of powerful regional politicians. France, the dominant European producer, was concerned to protect itself from cheap North American and Australian imports. Britain, where agricultural productivity was shooting up, had to be walled out.

Now, almost 50 years later, much of the structure has been made obsolete by the massive increases in agricultural productivity and international trade, and by the replacement of agricultural by non-agricultural employment in rural areas. Yet the vested interests have changed only their outward appearance.

Why do they remain so entrenched? Partly because the jobs of thousands of local politicians and millions of uneconomic farmers depend on the continued distribution of largesse. Moreover, the cost can be made to seem almost invisible to the EU taxpayer. And besides, urban voters have got what they wanted: good, cheap, plentiful food, more diverse, more available than ever before.

Meanwhile much of articulate public opinion continues to favour the farmers. Recall the intensely pro-farmer media coverage of the foot and mouth outbreak in Britain. In France, support for farmers has been explicitly fostered. Foreigners who try to sell us cheap food are cheating (or poisoning) us. Our farmers are the hard-working guardians of our landscape. Lose them and we lose our history, our soul.

And so the CAP continues, in the teeth of all the evidence that it now works against the things it is supposed to assist.

Romance is an excellent basis for culture, but generally a rotten one for permanent government programs.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2003 10:34 AM

Young MacDonald sold the farm...

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at November 19, 2003 11:05 PM

Sugar is fungible. Sugar growing conditions are not.

You pay more for sugar grown by free men than sugar grown by slaves, but it's worth more.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 20, 2003 1:44 AM

That's why I eat free-range poultry and eggs.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 21, 2003 6:50 AM