Sunday, 7 January 2018

Brexit: and whether subsidies are bad for sustainable agriculture...

This blog has looked at the notion of 'sustainable agriculture':
Futures Forum: Sustainable intensification of agriculture: an oxymoron >>> revisited

It has also looked the controversies around 'subsidies':
Futures Forum: Climate change: “The perverse farm subsidy regime” >>> "paying the agriculture industry to help the environment seems to be working."

Back in the summer, the topic was raised on several fronts:
Think-tank calls for end to farmers' food subsidies - Financial TimesUK farmers are addicted to subsidy, says government adviser | Environment | The Guardian

As we look to a post-Brexit regime which might well give us a WTO framework for farming, the man from the World Bank thinks EU farm subsidies are a good thing:
World Bank agri boss: Investing in technology will help all farmers – EURACTIV.com

Meanwhile back in August 2013, WTO members were happily piling on the farm subsidies:

Are agricultural subsidies causing more harm than good?

We need to revamp government support to make sure it boosts efficiency, not shrinks it, writes Jason Clay

 Agricultural subsidies have grown rapidly in developing countries. Photograph: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

At the World Trade Organisation's Doha Round in 2001, many developing nations – including Brazil, China and India – opposed agricultural subsidies in the US and EU. They argued the high subsidies were artificially driving down global crop prices, unfairly undermining small farmers and maintaining poverty in many developing countries.
What a difference 12 years makes. In that time, developing countries have grown their own agricultural subsidies rapidly. And those in BRIIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia and China) have increased the fastest.
China's agricultural subsidies, estimated at $160bn (£103bn) in 2012, now dwarf those in the US ($19bn) and EU ($67bn) combined. Brazil's agricultural subsidies have doubled in just three years, and now total about $10bn, according to a recent government report. And in India, price supports for wheat and rice grew by 72% and 75%, respectively, between 2005-06 and 2010-11, significantly exceeding those in the US.
If done well, these rapidly developing countries' agricultural investments could support innovation and help build a stronger middle class, feed the hungry, produce surpluses for export and pull millions of the rural poor out of poverty and into better lifestyles. But such spending must be very targeted and short term. For example, a subsidy could be used to support the adoption of technologies or practices that are not common with producers. But, once proven to be cost effective, the subsidies should be removed. In general, subsidies should be employed to change behaviour and solve specific problems rather than to serve as a long-term crutch for producers. If not, it will stifle innovation and make producers both less competitive and more dependent on government.
On our finite planet, where natural resources are increasingly hard to come by, it's important for producers to focus on doing more with less. Subsidies tend to reduce incentives for producers to boost efficiency and shift their focus from crops to farming subsidies. As a result, many end up doing less with more. 
For example, India subsidises the cost of energy to pump water for agriculture, which encourages producers to pump more water than they need. This has made Indian producers among the world's least efficient water users. Given that food and water are in short supply, a more effective way to run the system would be to support those who produce more food with less water.
Global subsidies may also lead producers to overuse fertilisers or pesticides, which can result in soil degradation, groundwater depletion and other negative environmental impacts. In addition, agricultural subsidies and price supports can also distort global commodity markets, affecting the global economy, and affect national security, food security and poverty.
As per-capita incomes and consumption increase globally, the last thing we need are market distortions that send producers unclear signals about food prices and global demand. Unless handled carefully, agricultural subsidies could undermine efforts to promote efficiency and more sustainable agriculture. And that, in turn, could make many people reluctant to invest in sustainability at all.
What we need, now more than ever, are producers who invest in efficiency, innovation and sustainability. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, an increasing number of producers defend subsidies and seek to maintain or even increase them. To change this situation, governments first need to wake up to the long-term implications of agricultural subsidies.
It is advisable for them to be more wary. After all, many developing countries still struggle to provide basic services such as clean air and water, education, public services, infrastructure and healthcare for ageing populations. Within the context of these competing needs, we need to ensure that any agricultural subsidies increase productivity, efficiency and global competitiveness. Otherwise, it will be increasingly difficult to justify supporting one segment of the population when so many other priorities remain unfunded.
We've come a long way since the Doha launch, in terms of global economic growth and the increase in global per-capita GDP. Many BRIIC and developing countries have led the way. Now we need to take a hard look to assess whether agricultural subsidies are the best way to address food security and other basic human needs.
Global economic progress requires a recalibration of how we approach today's challenges. Agricultural subsidies can be a blunt instrument that can impede progress and slow economic growth if they're wielded without precision and a specific cut-off date. We'll only succeed in protecting our planet – and our food security – if we change how we think about subsidies and how we use them.
Jason Clay is the senior vice president of market transformation at WWF-US

Are agricultural subsidies causing more harm than good? | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian

The former Environment Secretary was not exactly pro-farm subsidies:
Concerns mount over Andrea Leadsom's suitability for environment role | Environment | The Guardian

Whereas the current minister is currently sending out very mixed messages:


Will Brexit carpet Britain with wildflowers – or just make landowners richer?

Michael Gove’s speech to today’s Oxford Farming Conference is an annual pilgrimage for all Defra Secretaries. But today, for the first time, the environment secretary is also addressing the Oxford Real Farming Conference – the green one, set up originally as an alternative to the one dominated by agribusiness and large landowners, but which has grown in both size and status to rival its conventional counterpart.
Gove’s break with tradition is yet another example of his transformation over the past six months from “shy green” to seemingly full-throated environmentalist. For months he has hinted at a greener system of farm subsidies post-Brexit, attacking the current Common Agricultural Policy on grounds that it “rewards [the] size of land-holding ahead of good environmental practice, and all too often puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment.”
In Oxford today, Gove outlined his commitment to uphold high environmental and animal welfare standards in any new trade deals. Refreshingly, he recognises that a flourishing environment is the bedrock of a thriving and sustainable food and farming system, not a barrier to food production, and that improving public health is an important public good.
But the policies Gove has announced suggest the big landowners and the National Farmers Union still have his ear.
Britain will indeed set up a greener system of farm payments after Brexit, Gove states, moving “away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods.” This, as the Guardian has reported, could see more funding for species-rich flower meadows and habitat restoration – vital if we’re to reverse decades of decline: the number of farmland birds has halved since 1970. The environment secretary’s speech also recognises that public access to nature is a common good deserving of funding. So that could mean more money for rural cycle paths and upkeep of footpaths, which should please anyone who enjoys walking, cycling or riding in our beautiful countryside.
Yet Gove’s announcements also confirm that wealthy landowners will continue to be subsidised for some years yet, with few strings attached – helping to prop up environmentally-damaging land management practices. The Basic Payments Scheme (BPS), which essentially rewards landowners for the amount of land they own, will keep going for longer than expected – for five years after Brexit until 2024, as the Times reports (and as confirmed in a Q&A session after Gove’s speech).
That means the taxpayer will keep on subsidising land-owning dukes (recipients of £8m in farm subsidies in 2016), billionaire Brexiteer James Dyson (who hoovered up £1.8m in 2016), and horseracing studs owned by Saudi princes (such as this one uncovered by Greenpeace). Worse still, Gove’s concession could see money keep flowing to grouse moor estates, which, as a Friends of the Earth investigation has shown, cover an area of England the size of greater London and are being supported by millions in subsidies annually. Intensive grouse moor management lies behind the precipitate decline in Hen Harriers, and by burning heather, desiccating peatland and denuding the uplands, may be worsening flooding downstream.
It would seem that overtures from the likes of Dyson – who has been lobbying hard to protect his farm subsidies – has convinced Gove to delay a little longer in reforming the current broken system. But the environment secretary has at least proposed to cap or reduce the largest BPS payments during the transition to a new system – something that is already done in other EU countries.
Instead of continuing to line the pockets of wealthy landowners for longer, we need Gove to secure the money but divert it into new schemes that require all farmers to deliver public benefits like restoring and enhancing biodiversity, building healthy soils, mitigating climate change and supporting sustainable, healthy diets. Green farming practices should be the norm, not confined to niche pockets of the countryside.
Michael Gove’s enthusiasm for nature and apparent commitment to green policy is a refreshing change from a string of environment secretaries who did little to reform matters (or who, like Owen Paterson, were completely antithetical to environmentalism). But special interests die hard. Let’s hope Gove doesn’t listen too long to the pleadings of Dyson, dukes and grouse moor owners, and instead presses ahead with directing public money to repairing and restoring our battered environment.
Guy Shrubsole is a campaigner at Friends of the Earth. Follow him@guyshrubsole.

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