Farm Subsidies That Starve the World

New Statesman
June 20 2005

In Ghana's Katanga Valley, the staple food is rice. This comes as no surprise, given that the fields for miles around are paddies. Look a little further and the sacks piled high on village walls sport an American flag. This most simple of foods is brought in courtesy of the US department of agriculture. Presumably, it comes out of the aid budget. Look a little further again and the fields lie fallow. The powers that be, presumably the lending institutions, have decreed that local rice is not quite good enough, or cost-effective enough, for international markets.

This is the global food scandal in microcosm. There are thousands of examples like this where heavily subsidised commodities from the so-called developed world are dumped on the poor, while they are prevented from securing access to the markets of the rich. It is in this economic deviancy that the two big issues of the moment - Europe and the G8 - coalesce. The Katanga story might equally have involved food sent from the European Union or Japan, the two other purveyors of trade immorality.

Tony Blair is focusing closer to home, on the Common Agricultural Policy, an integral part of the original European project. He is doing this partly to divert attention from the UK's indefensible budget rebate, and partly to kick an enemy when he's down - Jacques Chirac after the double No vote on the constitution. This is opportunism, in true Brit style, but that does not mean the Prime Minister is wrong (just as the French president is not wrong to attack the rebate, even if his motives are equally artful). The CAP was born in the postwar years, when food aplenty in Europe was not a given. Its aims were to guarantee supplies and subsistence levels for farmers and to slow down flight to the cities.

It is now an abhorrence, not because it disproportionately helps agriculture in France as distinct from other EU members (what would our politicians be saying if we were the main beneficiaries?) but because of its effects on the rest of the world. As Bob Geldof never ceases to point out, every cow in the European Union receives more money than the daily income of the average African.

As Blair has taken to pointing out, £68bn worth of CAP money has been poured into French farms over the past ten years, even though they account for only 4 per cent of France's workforce. The overall EU agriculture budget may have been reduced. The mechanisms for doling it out may have changed, with subsidies largely separated from output and more emphasis on environment, animal welfare and safety. But the CAP still accounts for 40 per cent of EU spending. Each year that it survives, it does terrible harm to swathes of the world.

And yet it could be argued that European policy in this area is less morally offensive than America's. After all, the EU was, rightly or wrongly, built on principles of solidarity and equality - why else would so much money be diverted into regional aid and structural funds? US policy-makers preach the merits of pure markets and pure free trade. The actions of governments and corporations take almost the exact reverse form: the corruption and inefficiencies of the monopoly plus heavy protectionism, selectively applied.

If the US and Europe removed their farm subsidies, the value of African food exports would double. According to Oxfam estimates, protectionism in rich countries costs the developing world £60bn a year. The organisation cites the example of sugar. Under the current regime of quotas and high tariffs, Europe's sugar prices are set at almost three times world market levels. Each year, European consumers and taxpayers foot the bill, of roughly £1bn, while developing countries - encouraged to liberalise their markets under IMF/World Bank strictures - suffer the consequences.

The case against the CAP, when set in a global context, is incontrovertible. But what about us? Unlike the French, many Britons have lost any association with the land. For all our new-found love of good food, we have little knowledge of, or interest in, the way it is produced. Our farming is not done by farmers, but agribusinesses. We pile it high, we sell it cheap. From the field to the shelf, from the Kentish strawberry grower (or more likely Spanish) to the Madagascan prawn fisherman, our supermarkets dictate the terms.

Fair trade is growing, but its proportion of the market remains tiny. Most consumers remain fixated on price, whatever the consequences. The French may be fair game for their support of an insupportable subsidy, but the long-term solution to the iniquity lies closer to home - in our minds and our fridges. The farmers are not the problem. We are.

Ex-jurors should be free to speak

''What emerges from this juror's account is that the trial was misconceived almost from the first." In July 1979, the New Statesman was prosecuted for contempt of court for interviewing a juror after the spectacular collapse of the murder case against the former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe. The quotation above is taken from the NS article. It could just as easily have applied to the trial of Michael Jackson. In contemporary California, jurors have spoken out with some eloquence about why they could not convict. In the UK, such openness is banned.

The NS was on solid legal ground. In spite of the government's best efforts to gag it, the courts found in our favour. Not to be outdone, ministers quickly changed the law. They would be wise to consider changing it back again. Respect for our legal system rests not just on justice being done and seen to be done - but also on being explained as it is done.

More Information on Social and Economic Policy
More Information on Hunger and the Globalized System of Trade and Food Production
More Information on Agricultural Subsidies

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