BBC's "Farming Today" defends tax-funded EU farm subsidies & higher food prices

by Barry M-C on August 20, 2011

Radio 4’s “Farming Today” and its defence of European Union farm subsidies (broadcast 6.30am, 20th August 2011) was surprising only in how one-sided was the presentation of the debate. Rather than the balanced, dispassionate presentation of the case for and against government subsidies to farmers – something that one might have expected from the venerable BBC and its mandate to “speak truth to all nations” – listeners were instead treated to 30 minutes of propaganda in favour of more taxes and higher food prices.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has long-faced criticism for its attempts to supplant bureaucratic direction and control for the market forces of supply and demand.  Its tax-funded subsidy payments to farmers have further harmed consumers at the supermarket through higher food prices.  The CAP has distorted economic incentives, creating wine lakes and butter mountains and other gluts of over-production, yet left other foods under-produced.  Whilst foreign food producers, particularly in Africa and other developing areas, face tarriff barriers and other forms of protectionism aimed to protect the EU’s farming lobby (but not food buying consumers), those foreign producers also face their livelihoods being massively disrupted by the EU dumping excess food on to the world markets, driving down their local prices and making farming less sustainable in those areas.

Yet, most if not all these criticisms were absent from Farming Today’s discussion of subsidies.  A few words from a spokesman of and how CAP adds some £110 per year to every taxpayers’ food bills were quickly dismissed; instead, we were treated to a confused justification of farming sudbsidies, including an appeal to our emotions with an interview with a struggling tenant farmer who needs the CAP payments to cover his land rent.  Yet, if an activity is not conomically profitable, should it be supported by taxation and artificially higher prices?  In other sectors, entrpreneurs who don’t effectively meet their consumers’ demands go out of business; why is farming different?  Further, as even Farming Today’s report intimated, the CAP system of subsidies actually maintains an artificially higher raft of land prices, forcing new entrants to buy into and then, out of financial necessity, to become dependant upon and publicly supportive of that system of state largesse and entitlements.

According to Farming Today’s report, taxpayers should also pay higher taxes and consumers higher food prices to encourage farmers to do what they would be doing if they are good farmers, i.e. protecting their land, conserving and improving soil quality and long-term yield.  In other words, it is a bribe to be better farmers.  But markets have “bribes” as well – they’re called profits and they direct individuals to take a more responsible view to the use they make of resources.  The main question then becomes how to extend the individual’s time horizon so that they take a longer view when it comes to husbanding resources; there is an ample body of evidence to suggest that secure private property rights under the rule of law is more successful at conserving and developing resources than a system of subsidies and government regulations where conservation decisions are taken merely to “farm the subsidy”.

Another “justification” for CAP is how it “protects” the countryside; but if that is its purpose, then it would be more efficient and more transparent to establish a more explicit system of direct payments decoupled from any considerations of farming and agricultural output.  And, again, private property rights tend to do a better job than a subsidy regime that imposes distant, bureaucratic decision-making upon an individual landowner’s or farmer’s local knowledge of time and place.

It would be interesting – and more balanced – had the BBC provided a greater dialogue with the representative of However, as this short film makes clear, the idea of open and honest debate over farm subsidies in the European Union is not a popular one amongst the elite and their media friends!

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