No tomatoes, and you get a Maserati

THE Common Agricultural Policy, an observer's guide to the process of European self-sufficiency in food.

THROUGH a combination of target price, intervention and threshold pricing, farm revenues are pushed towards levels determined by the EC Council of Ministers.

Thus, farmers grow a tomato and the Council of Ministers pays them for two tomatoes. Paradoxically, this does not encourage the farmers to halve production in times of plenty, it encourages them to double it. This is clearly unsatisfactory to the Council of Ministers as it introduces a dangerous long-term insecurity into the supply and demand model and this will ultimately threaten the regular supply of tomatoes. Farmers are therefore lobbying the legislature to ease the long-term threat to the supply situation by paying them for three tomatoes for every tomato they grow, in which case they could immediately treble production.

The set-aside policy is better still, as it pays farmers for every tomato they do not grow. The resulting tomato famine drives the price of tomatoes through the roof and allows farmers to buy land that is wholly unsuitable for growing tomatoes, thus helping resolve the problem of unpopular tomato surpluses.

Tomato surpluses drive the world price of tomatoes down, thereby impoverishing tomato- based economies in Africa. At the same time, subsidies that create the surpluses keep the price of domestic tomatoes up, impoverishing consumers.

Subsidy money has become essential to the market mechanism and is invested by the agricultural sector in many ways - none more profitable than the labour-intensive process of rooting out hedges. The soil structure quickly becomes unstable and topsoil blows away. This renders the farmer eligible for a disaster grant. Such grants have created a lively market in disaster, and the most profitable farms in Europe now have no topsoil at all. This accords with the long-term strategy of the Council of Ministers, as farms without topsoil have optimum conditions for not growing tomatoes.

Beyond market gardening there is the question of ruminant meat. Farmers call this sheep. In northern Europe even gardeners call this sheep, as their 10-acre plots yield a respectable living from these animals, owing to the Council of Ministers' decision to pay them for ten sheep for every one sheep they fatten. During long winters the beasts double as capital investment and bed warmers. Being so valuable, the sheep commonly share the facilities of the house with the farmer's family, and, in exceptional circumstances, may be privately educated with the children. They rarely pass their kill-by date, no matter what their proficiency in irregular verbs.

Ruminant meat is an essential part of the agricultural economy; as well as providing every peasant farmer with his birthright of a Maserati, sheep are also a vital element in the long- term strategy of the sector. If governments, for instance, suggest reducing the sheep subsidy, sheep farmers drive their flocks into the centre of town and slaughter them on the steps of the parliament building.

The protest is telegenic and has always been successful to date. Farmers frequently stage this protest in solidarity with tomato farmers as they can also pick up a large disaster grant for sudden stock depletion.

Other grants are made on the basis of atmospheric conditions: drought, deluge and all weather in between. If it is sunny with rainy periods, or rainy with sunny periods, or cloudy and windy but not very wet, or very wet with low cloud and high winds, farmers can do only one thing: apply to the Council of Ministers for compensation.

In France, where Dadaists have taken over the French policy machine, farmers are paid for one tomato for every snail they don't grow, which is why every tomato farmer has a Maserati in his harvester shed instead of a tomato harvester.

As well as not growing tomatoes, the surreal agriculturalists plant light bulbs and micturate over them in many colours. Although critics are sceptical about admitting tomato farmers into the genre of performance art, the Council of Ministers is excited by this daring mix of culture and agriculture.

You might think Dadaism would look strange as an element of the Common Agricultural Policy, but you couldn't be further from the mark.