16 November 2001


American farmers are

offered a great deal of

protection by their

government. If only it

was the same for their

British counterparts…

BY the time this appears in print, statements on the success or otherwise of the WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar, will have been issued. I am writing this before those communiqués, so I may get it wrong.

But I suspect, despite all the bold words since the World Trade Center was attacked (about it now being more important than ever to reach a global trading agreement), that little progress toward the declared objectives will have been made. If that is the case, farmers may take some comfort in the likelihood that more acceptable compromises will have to be sought.

For many of the leaders of WTO member states, dragged on by the determination of the US and encouraged by academics whose proposals are being debated, are still confused over the implications of what they think they are trying to achieve. I will not comment on the important arguments on drug patents, software licensing and intellectual property.

Farming policies are our business, however, and in trade negotiations they have always been difficult. That may be because they should not have been included in the first place.

Call that comment unrealistic if you like. And I concede our industry cannot escape all the WTOs proposals – to cut import tariffs, reduce production subsidies, limit export aid, and so on. But consider some of the contradictions and distortions between what some countries say and what they do. And think of the effects on our industry, environment and food security if some of those proposals are adopted.

The US has said it wants the world-wide abolition of production-based aid to agriculture. Such aid distorts trade, US representatives say, and it must be brought to an end. Meanwhile, the US Congress has pushed through a Bill that will substantially increase government payments to US farmers, via something called counter-cyclical aid, for the next 10 years.

A cynic might think the US is saying one thing but doing another; that it is determined to ensure its farmers remain in business to export to the rest of the world but equally determined to make it as difficult as possible for other countries to export to the US. The US seems to think free trade is one way only.

Here at home, we are constantly reminded the CAP costs more than half the EUs income and that is undoubtedly true, because agriculture is much the largest industry over which it presides. We are not so regularly reminded that the CAP, for the second year running, has substantially under-spent against budget. Nor are we told how the cost of supporting agriculture across the EU can be put into more meaningful perspective.

But as George Scales reminded FW readers in his letter last week, the actual cost of providing food security for the EU amounts to just 1.6% of GDP – which Franz Fischler described as good value for money. It is a truism to say you can prove anything by selecting statistics. Would that the statistic just quoted were as well known as some of the others.

By its recent pronouncements, the UK government – one of Americas staunchest allies in the trade talks – clearly wants to industrialise UK production agriculture, making it more efficient and able to compete on world markets. Ministers are apparently still labouring under the delusion that this is possible. They have yet to learn that, because the world market is the last resort of most vendors and market prices, based on supply and demand, have nothing to do with production costs.

At the same time they want farmers to reduce inputs, leave wildlife habitats uncropped, and conserve the beautiful British landscape, virtually as our contribution to the society that contributes 1.6% of GDP to help us. The aid currently allocated to environmental enhancement would have little effect if farmers did not contribute the lions share of the costs from other resources.

The UK government, by the imposition of strict production standards, implies it wants UK consumers to be able to buy home produced food and be assured of its safety and traceability. But it also argues for greater access for foreign food, most of which, by definition, cannot match the ethical standards of home production. The government is presumably happy for farm workers, farm animals and the environment to be exploited in exporting countries, so long as British consumers are not aware of it.

Worst of all, the government, citing WTO proposals and further CAP reform, continues to threaten the removal of most farm aid at a time when even the most efficient agri-businesses are already finding it impossible to produce sustainable profits.

Now it may be that cleverer people than me can reconcile this list, which is by no means comprehensive, and show how apparent opposites can be integrated into a viable future for UK farming. A challenge, perhaps, for the Curry Commission on the future of farming, and I look forward to its report.

But unless and until someone can convince me how these contradictory policies can be made to fit together, I for one will feel bound to resist them and try to get them changed.

The government is presumably happy for farm workers, farm animals and the environment to be exploited in exporting countries, so long as British consumers are not aware of it.

See more