Why farm support puts food on plates

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Related tags: Agriculture

“Four legs good, two legs bad.” When the pigs take over the land in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, they have no hesitation; any creature with four legs is beyond reproach and any human is bad, mad and dangerous to know.

A similar dogma plagues the way the West thinks about how agriculture should - or more commonly in Western Europe at least should not - be supported. Free markets and wholly liberalised agricultural trade are good, wholesome things to be nurtured; while government intervention to boost production by supporting farm incomes is poisonously bad.

If that dogma goes unchallenged, food companies and the millions of consumers who rely on them for the adequate provision of safe and reasonably-affordable food could pay a high price – literally and figuratively.

It’s a topic that was drawn into focus last week when EU farm ministers agreed the latest reform to the £42bn Common Agricultural Policy. Building on the key reforms introduced in 2003 which broke the link between production and support, the recent agreement steers even more support money to conservation management.

Britain, a major proponent of free market farming economics, was widely considered to have been out maneuvered by a wily-footed France which holds the EU’s rotating presidency. A deal was finally brokered only after promises of concessions to Irish, German and Austrian dairy farmers. And countries will be allowed to redirect unspent farm support into extra direct payments to farmers.

Now, I know it is not popular or fashionable to defend any form of government intervention to support western farmers. But, in an increasingly hungry world, it may become more than just a good idea – it may become a socio-economic imperative.

An economic imperative to ensure food companies and the consumers they supply have a plentiful supply of fairly-priced, good quality raw materials and a humanitarian imperative to ensure much of the world’s health is no longer compromised by its lack of wealth to buy food.

Biofuel fuel production and climate change are the twin arms of a deadly pincer movement that could imperil global supplies of food. And that’s without considering the threat of a terrorist attack on food supplies – a threat the United States Department of Agriculture takes very seriously. As consumption threatens to outpace supply, our global food system is more precarious now than it has ever been.

We should not dismiss all government intervention in food markets simply because the dark years of the CAP led to such hideous excesses. Neither can we rely on “the market’s hidden hand” to resolve supply and demand imbalances. It’s too slow, too unsure and the consequences of failure are too high to risk.

Governments must intervene, albeit with a light hand, to ensure production matches demand. And that requires stable prices in food markets which encourage producers to make the investments necessary to boost food production. Over the past 10 years, so much of EU farm support has been devoted to conservation strategies focusing on achieving environmental targets . But you can’t put pretty views on a plate and eat them.

Governments must help to create the climate in which farmers can maximise production by ironing out the disruptive factors of free market economics and bad weather.

At the end of Animal Farm​, the pigs became indistinguishable from the humans​against which they rebelled. There’s growing evidence that not supporting farm incomes could be as bad, in terms of food shortages and high prices, than the old CAP with all its well publicized excesses.

Mike Stones has written on food and farming topics for 20 years. He lives in Southern France and co-owns a small family arable farm in northern England. If you would like to comment on this article please email michael.stones ‘at’ decisionnews.com.

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