Recent Guardian discussion on EU Ag Subsidies

Tony Gosling tony at
Tue Dec 11 12:02:30 GMT 2012

The right targets for EU subsidies
The Guardian, Wednesday 28 November 2012 21.00 GMT

It is alarming that George Monbiot is promoting 
the anti-farming rhetoric of 19th-century 
laissez-faire (A €50bn bung that enriches 
landowners and kills wildlife, 27 November). Karl 
Marx himself pointed out that the abolition of 
the corn laws was an industrialists' ruse to 
lower wages in Britain by importing cheap, 
mass-produced food from foreign and colonial partners. And so it proved.
After the destruction of British agriculture, and 
the overcrowding of ex-farm workers in 
slum-ridden towns, the beginning of the 20th 
century brought the results of prolonged 
malnutrition, when half the British recruits for 
the Boer war were rejected for being too unfit or 
simply too small to bear arms, in a war that was 
a prelude to those in which the UK faced 
starvation for producing only a third of its food.
After the two world wars, the UK lost the foreign 
investments and imperial preference markets the 
industrialists had been pressing the country to 
fight for. It is not as if neocolonial 
food-exporting countries benefit: the Via 
Campersina and Food Sovereignty movements 
struggle to point out that big-scale food and 
commodity exports put the local subsistence 
farmers out of work because, under free trade, 
they get dumped on by big foreign food producers in their turn.
The global model Monbiot is supporting is one 
where industrial corporations are interlocked 
with international agribusiness serving only 
themselves. If Monbiot is worried by the 
enrichment of big landowners, he should argue for 
land value tax, which would ensure common 
agricultural policy subsidies go into food 
production by preventing them being diverted into 
the owners' land values. The choice remains: 
subsidise home-grown food producers or subsidise 
industrialists to pay skinflint wages in 
unsustainable industries in fractured communities.
DBC Reed

• George Monbiot's justifiable concern about the 
overuse of sheep in the uplands has unfortunately 
led him into a bout of mindless CAP bashing. "Why 
do we need (EU farm) subsidies?" he asks. The 
answer is because, without them, our farmers 
would be undercut by countries with cheaper land, 
cheaper labour and lower environmental standards. 
We would import more food, which would 
effectively mean that we were trashing somebody 
else's environment instead of our own – the very 
kind of neocolonialism that Monbiot normally 
decries. For example, when subsidies were lowered 
on sugar beet in 2006, the UK's consumption of 
cane sugar went up, and Tate & Lyle and British 
Sugar have since been involved in land grabs in 
Africa and south-east Asia which deprive small 
farmers of land and, in the case of Africa, 
require vast amounts of scarce water.
Admittedly, subsidies are a far from ideal 
solution, because they are expensive and rich 
countries can afford them while poor countries 
cannot. Tariffs, on the other hand, bring in 
money and can be applied by poor and wealthy 
countries alike – but they are at odds with world 
trade regulations. Monbiot would do better to 
direct his polemic against the World Trade 
Organisation, rather than the EU. As for the fat 
cats who cream off the best of the subsidies, the 
root of the problem is that they own far too much land.
Simon Fairlie
Bridport, Dorset

• George Monbiot missed the most important point: 
that we are heading for a budget settlement which 
proposes to cut the only part of the CAP which 
makes any sense – its rural development second 
pillar – at twice the rate proposed for the 
rightly criticised direct payments. Rural 
development policy offers purposive measures for 
protecting the environment, assisting rural 
diversification, modernising farms and their 
marketing and improving their competitiveness to 
enable them to survive without subsidies. This is 
the part of the CAP which deserves support.
David Baldock
Executive director, Institute for European Environmental Policy

• Listing the hidden beneficiaries of EU 
largesse, Monbiot misses one important target – 
the great British shopper. In no other industry 
are producers expected to sell their wares at 
below the costs of production, keeping prices 
artificially low. By all means, let's remove the 
subsidies and think more rationally about how and 
where to farm. But only if we simultaneously 
remove the monopoly buying power of the corporate 
food sector. And only if we take a careful look 
at how the UK can provide for its food needs 
because, in the long run, nobody else will. It's 
easy to blame farmers for the pathologies of 
modern agriculture. The truth is, the present 
food system gives few farmers any choice over how 
to produce our food – and many of them are suffering the consequences.
Chris Smaje
Frome, Somerset

Europe's €50bn bung that enriches landowners and kills wildlife
The EU's farm subsidies are a modern equivalent 
of feudal aid. As Europe suffers under austerity, it's right to call for reform 

The Fat of the Land
November 26, 2012
Robbing the poor, trashing the natural world: 
Europe’s farm subsidies are an obscenity.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 27th November 2012

There’s a neat symmetry in the numbers which 
helped to sink the European summit. The proposed 
budget was €50bn higher than the UK government 
could accept(1). This is the amount of money that 
European farmers are given every year(2). 
Britain’s contentious budget rebate is worth 
€3.6bn a year(3): a fraction less than our 
contribution to Europe’s farm subsidies(4).

Squatting at the heart of last week’s summit, 
poisoning all negotiations, is a vast wobbling 
lump of pork fat called the Common Agricultural 
Policy. The talks collapsed partly because the 
president of the European Council, pressed by 
Francois Hollande, proposed inflating the great 
blob by a further €8bn over six years(5). I don’t 
often find myself on their side, but the British 
and Dutch governments were right to say no.

It is a source of perpetual wonder that the 
people of Europe tolerate this robbery. Farm 
subsidies are the 21st century equivalent of 
feudal aid: the taxes mediaeval vassals were 
forced to pay their lords for the privilege of 
being sat upon(6). The single payment scheme, 
which accounts for most of the money, is an award 
for owning land. The more you own, the more you receive.

By astonishing coincidence, the biggest 
landowners happen to be among the richest people 
in Europe. Every taxpayer in the EU, including 
the poorest, subsidises the lords of the land: 
not once, as we did during the bank bailouts, but 
in perpetuity. Every household in the UK pays an 
average of £245 a year to keep millionaires in 
the style to which they are accustomed(7). No 
more regressive form of taxation has been devised 
on this continent since the old autocracies were 
overthrown. Never mind French farmers dumping 
manure in the streets: we should be dumping manure on French farmers.

It would be unfair to stop there. There are 
plenty of people in the UK who deserve the same 
treatment. Last year the House of Commons 
environment, food and rural affairs committee, in 
a bizarrely unbalanced report, maintained that 
the farm subsidy system does not go far 
enough(8). It wants to supplement payments for 
owning land with a resumption of headage 
payments: money for every animal farmers cram into their fields.

This nonsense outfrenches the French. There were 
excellent reasons for phasing out headage 
payments in 2003. They provided an incentive to 
load the hills with as many animals (mostly 
sheep) as possible, regardless of the impact on 
the natural world and the welfare of the sheep. 
The extra sheep flooded the market, bankrupting 
the farmers whom the payments were supposed to 
protect. The committee’s proposal accords with a 
long-standing and idiotic European principle: the 
less suitable a region is for farming, the more 
money is spent to ensure that farming persists 
there. This is the rationale for such extra 
subsidies as Less Favoured Area payments.

This approach is justified by a groundless claim: 
that farming, particularly in the uplands, is 
required to protect the environment. The European 
Commission maintains that farming is essential to 
“combat biodiversity loss” and to reduce 
emissions of greenhouse gases(9). The 
parliamentary committee claims that fewer cattle 
and sheep in the hills has led to “undergrazing”, 
which has caused such horrors as the growth of 
bracken(10). How nature managed to survive for 
the three billion years before humans arrived to 
look after it is anyone’s guess.

These statements are seldom accompanied by 
anything resembling a scientific reference. They 
reflect a biblical view of human stewardship. It 
would be lovely to believe that hill farmers, the 
landholders with whom it is easiest to 
sympathise, are delivering only blessings, but this is pure wish fulfilment.

Flooding of the kind now blighting the UK is 
exacerbated by grazing in the hills, which 
prevents trees and scrub from growing(11). The 
sparser the vegetation with which the hills are 
clothed, the faster the water runs off. Woodland 
and scrub preserve more carbon – both above and 
below ground – than pasture does(12). There has 
been a catastrophic decline in farm wildlife over 
the past few decades, as a result of grazing, 
drainage, sheep dip residues poisoning the 
streams and farmers’ clearance of habitats(13). 
Last week’s shocking report on the state of the 
UK’s birds shows that while 20% of all birds have 
been lost since 1966, on farmland the rate is over 50%(14).

The subsidy system doesn’t just encourage this 
destruction: it demands it. A European rule 
insists that to receive their main payment 
farmers must prevent “the encroachment of 
unwanted vegetation on agricultural land.”(15) In 
other words, they must stop trees and bushes from 
growing. They don’t have to grow crops or keep 
animals on the land to get their money, but they 
do have to keep it mown(16). All over Europe, 
essential wildlife habitats are destroyed – often 
on agriculturally worthless land – simply to 
expand the area eligible for subsidies(17).

The European Commission maintains that subsidies 
are required to help farmers “contribute to 
growing world food demand, expected 
 to increase 
by 70% by 2050.”(18) But if world food demand is 
expected to grow by 70%, why do we need 
subsidies? Not long ago, farm payments were 
justified on the grounds that world demand was 
low. Now they are justified on the grounds that 
world demand is high. The policy comes first, the justifications later.

While David Cameron is right to press for major 
cuts, he is simultaneously seeking to goldplate 
the injustice, by opposing the only vaguely 
progressive measure in the EC’s proposals for 
reform. The commission suggests capping the money 
farms can receive, at a maximum of €300,000(19). 
This, our government complains, would discourage 
the “consolidation” of land(20). Britain already 
has one of the highest concentrations of land 
ownership on earth(21). How much more 
“consolidation” do we need? And how much more 
brazenly could Cameron favour the interests of his aristocratic chums?

Europe is in crisis. It is in crisis because the 
money has run out. Essential public services are 
being cut (often unjustly and unnecessarily), but 
at the same time €50bn a year is being paid to 
landowners. This spending is so gross, so nakedly 
indefensible that it’s hard to understand why it 
does not obsess activists across the political 
spectrum: from UK Uncut to the Tax Payers’ 
Alliance. Seldom in the field of human conflict 
was so much given by so many to so few.





4. Last year, Defra told me the British 
contribution is £3.6bn. 31st August 2011, by email.



7. Defra, 31st August 2011, by email.

8. House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural 
Affairs Committee, 16th February 2011. Farming in 
the Uplands. Third Report of Session 2010–11.

9. European Commission, 18th November 2010. The CAP towards 2020:
Meeting the food, natural resources and 
territorial challenges of the future. COM(2010) 
672 final.

10. House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural 
Affairs Committee, 16th February 2011. Farming in 
the Uplands. Third Report of Session 2010–11.

11. For example, compare Figure 20.22 in Chapter 
20 of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment with 
Figure 13.14a in Chapter 13. The increase in 
flood events bears no relationship to changes in 
rainfall. The other major change in that period 
has been a massive increase in stocking rates in 
the catchment of the Wye.

12. Scottish Executive Environment and Rural 
Affairs Department Environmental Research, 2007. 
ECOSSE – Estimating Carbon in Organic Soils Sequestration and

13. See Figure 20.11 of Chapter 20 of the UK 
National Ecosystem Assessment.


15. European Commission, 2009. Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions

16. The UK government interprets this (GAEC 12) 
as follows: “You must cut scrub and cut or graze 
rank vegetation on the whole area of your 
agricultural land that you do not use for 
agricultural production at least once every 5 
years, in order to prevent encroachment of 

17. See Miles King, December 2010. An 
Investigation into Policies Affecting Europe’s 
Semi-Natural Grasslands. The Grasslands Trust.

18. European Commission, 18th November 2010. The CAP towards 2020:
Meeting the food, natural resources and 
territorial challenges of the future. COM(2010) 
672 final.

19. Department for Environment Food and Rural 
Affairs, December 2011. CAP Reform post 2013: 
Defra discussion paper on the impact in England 
of EU Commission regulatory proposals for Common 
Agricultural Policy reform, post 2013.

20. Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, January 2011.
UK response to the Commission communication and 
consultation “The CAP towards 2020: Meeting the 
food, natural resources and territorial 
challenges of the future”.

21. Kevin Cahill, 2002. Who Owns Britain. 
Canongate. He reports that 69% of the land is owned by 0.6% of the population.
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