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May 27, 2008

West’s hypocrisy on farm subsidies is a major crime against Africa

by Mutuma Mathiu*

Rich countries want to go to food heaven, but they don’t want to die. The European Union, for example, would like Africa to regard it as a friend out to help it crawl out of endemic poverty, violence and death.

But the policies of the European Union, particularly in agriculture, can only be described as economics of mass destruction.

What do you think is the single biggest item in the EU budget? Defence? Environment?

It is farm subsidies. They take 40 per cent of the EU budget, the small matter of some 40 billion euros, or Sh4 trillion, a year.

They pay their farmers to produce mountains of butter and lakes of milk, as one BBC report put it, then dump the whole lot on the international market and make it very close to impossible for farmers in the poor countries to put a square meal on the table.

The Europeans are currently reforming the Common Agricultural Policy, the mechanism by which they subsidise farmers. From what I have been reading, they are proposing modest changes to the structure of those subsidies, but the circumstances in the world are such that even after those reforms, their subsidies will not make sense to us Africans.

The Europeans and other rich people leaned on us to remove agricultural subsidies a long time ago; they kept theirs and are now able to dump their produce wherever they want.

Food is fetching good prices in world markets today, wheat is 84 per cent more expensive than it was a year ago, butter 21 per cent. There is therefore no reason for the Europeans and Americans to subsidise farmers who are already swimming in money. And there is no need either to pay farmers not to produce.

And it is not as if the bulk of the money goes to poor farmers; it goes to large commercial farmers and hereditary land owners. Eighty per cent of the subsidies go to 20 per cent of the farmers; the 40 per cent at the bottom of the wealth pyramid share only eight per cent.

European farm subsidies are a great enemy of Africa because they destroy the development of agricultural production systems on the continent, particularly within the Kenyan small holder system.

We have had occasion to marvel at the speed with which African farmers took up tea and coffee growing in Kenya and proceeded to produce the best quality in the world only a few short years after the colonial government allowed them to grow these crops.

My own experience in the 1980s after the end of the coffee boom persuades me that the African farmer is not ignorant as is generally imagined.

The alacrity with which farmers shifted from coffee to horticulture is sufficient evidence that with good markets, stable prices and an efficient marketing system, agriculture can feed and lift out of poverty the 80 per cent of our population that depends on it.

Without that, farmers resort to desperate and futile efforts to stay alive, such as planting eucalyptus trees.

Farms are overworked through the growing of zero-return crops.

In any case with a 50-kilo bag of fertilizer now going for KSh4000 ($64) , few can afford to take proper care of their crops. The yields plummet, and hungry villagers longingly eye the forests.

A farmer with a little money his pocket will take care of his land, preserve water by planting the right kind of trees, rather than eucalyptus, and will be a useful force in rural development and environmental protection. A broke peasant farmer is a danger to the planet.

In fairness, the Europeans are not the only ones distorting the markets with free money. The US Senate is this week fighting President Bush over a $300 billion Farm Bill so bloated with subsidies that he sent it right back, with a veto to go with it.

And the Senate united to override that veto, determined to protect the the $5 billion a year in so-called “pork” that will go to farmers--often big agribusinesses-- for simply owning land and growing crops.

I read in an Australian newspaper that Japan imposes tariffs of 700 per cent on categories of food imports.

An Indian newspaper complained of 3000 per cent tarrifs on rice imported into Japan.

The point is, the rich countries are able to dump food on the markets of poor countries.

The case of European beef in West Africa, I am told, is a scandal.

But the poor countries cannot export to rich countries because of ridiculous tarrifs designed to protect local farmers.

How long must we accept this slavery?

*Mutuma Mathiu is the managing editor, Sunday Nation (Kenya)

The Daily Nation

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