Tackling the new (old) productivism

This afternoon I did a pre-recorded interview with BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme. The subject was the House of Lords report on the 2010 EU budget, which says too much money is being spent on agriculture. The first question I was asked by the presenter shows how deeply the new (old) productivism has taken root over the past year. I was asked something along the lines of “Given the fears about food security, don’t we need a well-funded agriculture sector?”.

I replied that if the concern was food insecurity, then it’s worth remembering that the immediate impact of scarcity is to drive up prices. When prices go up, farmers have a very clear incentive to produce more. That’s how a market works. And we have seen this occur over the past two years. As prices have gone up so have crop plantings. I then explained that since the EU’s farm subsidy programmes are almost entirely de-coupled from production, meaning that farmers get the taxpayer-funded aid regardless of whether they produce anything, the dominant effect is price, not subsidy. Subsidies are an income support policy for farmers, just as they are defined in the EU legislation. They do not have an impact on food production. (I know there are those who would say there is always some production impact from giving money to farmers, in general it’s accepted that decoupled payments have the least production impact possible.)

If we can rely on market prices to stimulate farmers to produce the amount of food to meet the society’s needs, what should be the role of government? My view is that aside from any rural economic development policies which may have an agricultural angle, the state should reserve its interventions to securing the long-term sustainability of the land and the broader ecosystems that are required for productive farming (water, pollinating insects, soil) and a pleasant environment. This means making investments in conservation and in limited cases where it can be shown to provide value for money, paying farmers to follow certain kinds of land management practices. It could also mean toughening regulation to prevent over-exploitation of resources in the short term that might limit the future productivity of the land (e.g. mining water, destroying wildlife habitats).

As the BBC’s own Future of Food documentary series argues, the challenge for agriculture now is nothing compared to what it will be in 50 years time, when the effects of climate change, water depletion and peak oil will be much more acute. Farmers, like any businessmen, think mostly short term, at the outside a 5 to 10 year time horizon. Governments need to take the responsibility to think longer term, safeguarding the productive capacity of farm land for the next half century or century. And that means holding the line against the rise of traditional productivist thinking, old or new.

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