The harsh realities of European farm reform

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The Independent Online

For the Chancellor, as for other British politicians, the anti-CAP card is a convenient one to play domestically. Hostility to a policy that so disproportionately benefits France cuts across the British political divide. None of this, though, invalidates Mr Brown's central point about food trade injustice. He is right to point out how absurd it is for leaders of developed nations to discuss increasing aid, while spending 10 times the global aid budget each year on subsidies that drive farmers of the Third World out of business.

Mr Brown is also right to focus on the Common Agricultural Policyas a major culprit in distorting world trade. Apart from a handful of African states which have been granted preferential deals, poor countries simply cannot hope for a level playing field so long as Europe keeps out cheap food imports, while paying its own farmers to export surplus food at knockdown prices on world markets.

Yet if it wants to engage its European partners meaningfully in this debate, the Government needs to show a better understanding of the complexity of concerns surrounding agriculture than it has shown in the present discussion – which is now regrettably entangled in the future of the British rebate. For all its deep-rooted flaws, the CAP is not the same as the policy that generated milk lakes and butter and beef mountains in the 1980s. Spending on agriculture has fallen from 70 per cent of the EU's annual budget to about 40 per cent.

Mr Brown's plea on behalf of Africa's farmers might also sound more convincing if his own government had not fought so hard to retain the obscenely high subsidies that the richest individual British farmers – with the biggest acreages in the EU – still receive from Brussels. Britain should also acknowledge the extent to which some EU countries still regard their culture and identity as being rooted in the land - and accept the political difficulties of dismantling this anachronistic system.

Food quality and safety have also become key issues for consumers, particularly in the wake of scares such as the BSE epidemic. But even here, Britain has a solid case to make about ending or phasing out subsidisation. It is only in recent years that the CAP has begun to promote, through certified labelling for example, high quality, regional foods (such as Jersey royal potatoes) and organic produce rather than intensively farmed crops and animals. Yet, even as the traditional British desire for cheap , mass-produced food evolves into something more sophisticated, with increasing numbers turning to organic and speciality products, the Government can justifiably ask why, if there is a demand for high quality, chemical or pesticide-free food, the market will not deliver it without the need for subsidies. Support could be switched instead to maintaining the countryside and the rural environment.

The European Union has belatedly committed to dismantling its export subsidies, but refuses to act until the United States, Japan and others also scrap theirs. The Chancellor said yesterday that the Government would use its twin presidencies of the G8 and the EU to push for a date to eliminate all export subsidies worldwide. Such a commitment would be just a first step.