1980s >> 1988 >> no-1004-april-1988

Limiting food supply

Like their American counterparts a few years ago, European farmers too are going to be paid not to grow food. This was one of the decisions of the summit of Common Market Heads of Government in Brussels last February.

Known as “set aside”, this scheme is no doubt destined to become as notorious as the comparable US Soil Bank scheme which President Kennedy once frankly admitted to be one of “planned underproduction”. Under it, farmers who take at least 20 per cent of their land out of cultivation will be paid an annual subsidy of between £170 and £1,020 an acre, financed partly by their government and partly by the EEC. The full text of the decision, which we record for a no doubt incredulous posterity, reads as follows:

 Withdrawal of land (set-aside): The European Council agrees to accept a mechanism for limiting supply by withdrawing agricultural land from production. This will complement the other stabilisers; application will be compulsory for the Member States, but optional for producers. Regional exceptions to compulsory application will be possible.
In order to qualify, a producer must set aside at least 20 per cent of his arable land for at least five years. A producer who sets aside at least 30 per cent will, in addition to the premium, be exempted from the co-responsibility levy for 20t of cereals marketed by him.
The minimum premium will be 100 ECU/ha and the maximum 600 ECU/ha; the Community contribution will be 50 per cent for the first 200 ECU, 25 per cent for the following 200 to 400 ECU and 15 per cent for 400 to 600 ECU.
If the arable land is used for fallow grazing or converted to certain types of protein plant production, the premium will be approximately 50 per cent of the amount granted for complete set-aside.
The Community contribution will be financed 50 per cent from the EAGGF Guarantee Section and 50 per cent from the EAGGF Guidance Section

It is estimated that at least two million acres of land will be taken out of production under the scheme, which will be introduced on 1 July.

Such a scheme had first been officially proposed when Britain held the presidency of the EEC in the second half of 1986 when it was put to a conference of Common Market agricultural ministers in September of that year by the then Minister of Agriculture, Michael Jopling. The scheme was also anticipated in a consultative document issued by the present Minister of Agriculture, John MacGregor. last December in which he floated the idea of paying cereal producers between £60 and £80 an acre to take their land out of production. Predictably, the National Farmers’ Union said it wasn’t enough. They wanted to be paid more not to grow food, thus confirming that farms are places where the main aim is to make money not produce food. They ought to be happier about the EEC scheme.

Basically what the EEC has decided is that, instead of paying farmers to grow food which cannot be sold, they will pay them not to grow the food in the first place. The aim is to save money on storage costs. In capitalist logic, where food like everything else is produced to be sold on a market at a profit, this makes some sort of sense. There is no point in producing food that can’t be sold, despite the fact that it might be needed, as there is no profit in this. In terms of the logic of human interest, however, it is quite indefensible. As we were reminded, only a few weeks before the EEC Heads of Government made their decision, by (other) clowns wearing red noses, there is a crying need for food in certain parts of the world such as Ethiopia and Mozambique where people are literally dying of starvation.

Giving the food away to those who need it is too simple for capitalism, as it would upset the operation of the sacred market mechanism on which the system is based and which everyone including the Labour Party is now saying is the best way of distributing goods and services. In fact the market mechanism is a quite irrational way of distributing food, as the example of EEC food production shows. The capacity to produce the food to feed the starving is there but cannot be activated because the starving, not having any money, do not constitute a market. Until now the unsaleable food has been allowed to go rotten in storage. From now on farmers will be paid to cut back on the capacity to produce food. Both are equally irrational ways of solving the problem of poverty amid plenty but they are the only ones possible under capitalism.

Solving the problem in the obvious way of free access to food won’t be possible till socialism has been established. Indeed, this will probably be one of the first things that socialist society will have to do. Once socialism has been established, food everywhere will be produced not to make money but to satisfy the need for it. Capitalism with its food mountains in one part of the world while people are starving in another part will remain solely as a memory of humanity’s barbaric past.

Adam Buick