24 August 2001

When is farm support not farm support? When you farm in Nebraska not Norfolk, according to the US government.

It seems to believe UK and EU farm spending in, say, Norfolk, England, distorts world trade, is therefore bad and should be banned.

But US government support paid to farmers in Nebraska, and all the other states of the union, is essential emergency aid and, therefore, good.

Last week, US president George W Bush approved a $5.5bn (£3.9bn) emergency aid package for US farmers. The excuses, sorry, reasons behind the mind-boggling sum were the severe drought and low commodity prices.

Of course, the US government is fully entitled to grant support to its farmers. But, its actions belie all its fine words about the need to cut global farm support in order to grease the wheels of fair trade.

After so many free trade speeches from successive US politicians, its difficult on this side of the Atlantic to ignore the stench of rank hypocrisy blowing from the west.

That smell becomes even more pungent when we remember that the latest pay-out brings total US spending on emergency farm aid in the past four years to $30bn (£21bn).

Moreover, US farm spending totals $76bn shared among just 2m farmers compared with EU spending of $55bn divided between 7m farmers, according to EU figures.

It matters for two reasons. First, there can be no pretence of free and fair trade while the US makes such stupendous one-off support payments to its farmers. Second, future trade negotiations will inevitably be poisoned by the US attitude of say one thing and do another to farm spending.

Meanwhile, perhaps junior DEFRA minister Lord Whitty, who this week forecast the end of food production support within 10 years, might like to have a word with Mr Bush.

Wasnt the US Freedom to Farm Bill, unofficially renamed Freedom to Go Bust Bill, designed to achieve precisely that aim five years ago?

USSTANCEAGAINSTFARMAIDLUDICROUSINFACEOFITSOWNCASHHAND-OUTS