Thursday, February 19, 2009

Protecting our agriculture

Over on the Telegraph's comment section, Mark Price, Managing Director of Waitrose and Chairman of the Prince of Wales' Rural Action programme, writes that we need to look after British farming, but fails to put forward any new suggestions as to how we do that beyond sentimentalist pap.

As the global recession deepens, we must ensure that British agriculture survives and thrives in an uncertain future, says Mark Price.

OK, I agree - but how do we do that? Price doesn't say, but he is quick to say what we mustn't do.

Protectionist policies do not hold the answers; nor can we realistically aim for total self-sufficiency in food production.

Of course we can not aim for total self-sufficiency, but if we don't use "protectionist policies" then what?

However, we can ensure that, as a nation, we refocus on the true value of farming as a well-rewarded career in a diverse and sustainable sector populated by a skilled, passionate workforce.

Hmmm - that sounds like government subsidy to me. That in itself is a form of "protectionism" - one which the EU both allows and encourages - but it is also the most inefficient form of protectionism. All it does is sort of preserve farming as a kind of "living museum" which, without the provision of huge amounts of taxpayers money, would otherwise be unable to sustain itself.

This is what annoys me about the "anti-protectionists". They are quite happy to have protectionism in the form of direct government aid at the lowest level possible level - i.e. to the individual farmer - but can't see that a far better way of doing that is to protect the industry at the national level through trade barriers and tariffs.

That way the farmer is no longer directly reliant on the government to protect his livelihood, but is now dependent on the internal market and his own efforts to ensure he maintains a living. If the internal market was protected then he would no longer be competing against foreign farmers - who may enjoy bigger government subsidies or lower production costs - and would be able to compete on a level playing field with similar farmers around the country producing similar goods.

Yes, we'd have to pay a little more for our food, but as we're already paying massive amounts indirectly to the farming industry (and mostly to the farming industry in other EU member states) we'd be able to reduce the level of taxation on consumers anyway.

It's not just the direct subsidies either - there is also the huge army of bureaucrats required to administer the protectionist policy of subsidy and grant which is a massive cost we could easily lose if, instead, we just had a small group of people deciding what foreign produce we allow in, how much they allow in and how much they pay to let it in.

As Price points out, we're using a far smaller proportion of our income for our food than ever before even though we are eating far more (and chucking far more away) than we ever have at any time in our history. The British people can afford to pay more for their food IF we stop wasting taxpayers money supporting our farmers and foreign farmers through subsidies and grants - and we'd waste a lot less than we currently do.

If our government were to dare to be protectionist at national and border level rather than at the personal, individual level we'd be far more self-sufficient and farming (and fishing) could look after itself rather than rely on the government to support it.

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