Subsidizing agriculture?

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The farming world is too often thought of as an opposition between two groups: the subsidized farmers of the West and the poor farmers from developing countries. But for some twenty years, there have essentially been three groups, because a new category has arisen in the form of the Cairns Group’a group of nineteen countries including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and Indonesia, who practice large-scale farming on huge areas of inexpensive land, using cheap labor, and modern production methods that are not subsidized. This group promotes liberalization of global trade in agricultural produce, through the abolishment of export subsidies.

Trade subsidies are certainly a major issue. The European Unionís Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), for example, takes up more than 40% of the EU budget (45.36 billion euros in 2008). It is controversial for a number of reasons. Firstly, because many Europeans would prefer the EU to spend its budget on research, health, or education. Secondly, because the system favors the largest producers at the expense of smaller competitors, and harmful production methods instead of those that respect local ecosystems. And lastly, because it discriminates against farmers from non-EU countries. So what should be done?

Today, getting rid of the CAP would not be enough to save both small farmers and the environment. Moreover, the liberalization promoted by the Cairns Group is not socially and ecologically based–far from it. According to some studies, the abolition of the CAP could even have harmful effects on poor farmers, particularly in Africa, because they cannot compete with those from the Cairns Group. In addition, 60% of agricultural exports from Africa (excluding South Africa) are made up of cacao, coffee, tropical fruits and vegetables, and cotton: products that complement rather than compete with the agricultural products of Europe, and which are therefore not affected by the CAP. The problem is not with subsidies themselves, but the types of subsidies, to whom they are available, and why. If financial aid was given to support ecologically and socially sustainable agriculture, that would certainly not be a bad thing.

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