Why the CAP is a good idea

The European Common Agricultural Policy is a highly criticised European activity. Globalizers and free traders despise it as a programme of subsidy which inflates food prices. They say that the CAP displaces third world and Cairns group farming by creating huge surpluses that are subsequently dumped on others.

Egregious examples of waste and carousel frauds are often and rightly highlighted. The CAP is also, from time to time, tied to the Common Fisheries Policy, which has frankly been a disaster. Most of the time, the CAP is presented in Britain--as are most European ventures-- as a vast, essentially political, boondoggle.

Yet we are now entering a world of high food inflation tied to a relentless rise in oil, the demands of Asia for meat, feed protein, and staples, and a rise in commodity prices that impacts on the ability of food companies to move their products around the world.

Food security is important again.

These are two words that people are reluctant to use. They are, nevertheless, vital to understanding why it is important that the CAP, which is by no means perfect, is maintained.

First of all, small scale farming, local farms, and farms which exist alongside allotments and garden supply are a hedge against changes in world prices and supply. This is not a radical, deindustrial vision from a loopy green who seeks a world made by hand. It is common sense.

One of the characteristics of the steel town in which I grew up was that it contained a huge number of people who used their back gardens to grow carrots, rhubarb, potatoes, and fruit. Such people didn't supply all their own needs, but they supplemented their incomes enormously. My grandad did it. It was not unusual to see boxes outside houses where--different days--other people would leave coins in return for some carrots or leeks. Those days could return.

One difficulty, of course, is that lots of allotments or houses are on flood plains in Britain, and further that the soil attached to new house is not generally good. But that is all the more reason for small farms, supplying locally, to be sustained. Because the agricultural market is unstable, those small farms require a floor beneath them; and that is what the CAP should be. It is certainly one of the aims of the CAP.

Sometimes it is difficult for government, or European-level programmes to escape culture. Britain, and particularly England, has a particularly shabby and rapacious style of management which appears to be cultural and long-lasting. Managers in the public and private sector, and civil servants, have not typically been competent, well informed, or rational in their planning, preferring quick bucks and big operations. This failure of management has gone along with what others in the blogosphere have called 'Anglo-disease'--the prioritisation of short term capital and turnover over long-term planning and social infrastructure.

I don't think that Anglo disease will change overnight. Because of it, any scheme of subsidy in this country especially will tend to move less money than intended to small farms and more to huge enterprises.

However, this is not in itself a reason not to maintain a programme of subsidy aimed at farmers. Nor is the argument that the EU is predominantly rural whilst its opinion makers are urban, so the rural is unfairly ignored, in itself conclusive. The arguments become persuasive when one considers the alternatives.

One is entrepreneurial, large-scale agricultural industry. I have nothing against that per se. For instance, in Thanet at the moment, a huge enterprise that will eventually replace some fifteen per cent of salad imports is creating jobs and developing its greenhouses. It is a marvel of the market.

This enterprise, however, will take as much power as half of Thanet to run. It will be utterly dependent upon the movement of goods by road, and therefore upon fuel prices and availability. It will be a prop and an incentive for the supermarket model of development that, in an age of declining oil, will tend to turn cities into foodless islands dependent upon goods from far away. And it will be vulnerable to fire, or disaster.

The alternative to that would be very large farms of the sort some civil servants and farming companies seem to like. Those large farms would be tempted to use GM crops which are in some ways less productive and more destructive of the environment than traditional farming. All crops, all animals, are of course genetically modified by time and by agriculture, and it may be that the technology eventually works. Some things are microsoft, some are linux, some are mac, however; open source and open standard is as vital as the closed provision of proprietor software or food, with its convenience ranged against their ease and transparency.

Large agribusinesses would also, even if they made profits, labour under a huge temptation to export food to other parts of the world where it is even more lucrative to sell it than upon their own doorstep. Were they to exist in a world of agricultural free trade, this would be even more true. All very well for people outside; but governments have a responsibility to those at home.

One of the more interesting ways of looking at a state is to imagine it as a machine to feed individuals and families. The most basic form of state cannot survive a challenge to its food supply and maintain its legitimacy. Amongst the strongest arguments for the existence of Ireland and the Ukraine as independent states, for instance, and for that matter for Malawi's antagonism towards the international financial bodies, is that the putative overlords of those countries once forced upon them policies that starved them.

We are in a period of extreme instability globally, of stagflation, and of domestic threat. The sun still shines; crops still grow, and in most of the world rain will still fall. We should all be determined that large forces of capital and their clients and consultants do not undermine small farms, local provision of food, and food security. The proper role of the market is to supplement basic provision by allowing us exotic choices at fair cost, and that is why I would support an amended version of the CAP, focussed on food and its secure provision.

Here's a song that always makes me think of my mother's memories and songs of Ireland, even though it is about the Mira in Nova Scotia. It has a line which I always used to misremember; 'can you imagine a piece of the universe more fit for princes and kings?'. In my childish mind, I always used to remember it as 'can you imagine the peace of a universe forfeit of princes and kings?'. Donegal genes, you see, and make of it what you will.


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