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First blast of the trumpet against the Monstrous Regiments of Farmers1

Scott Wickstein takes a look at how farmers in so many parts of the First World get away with distorting trade at other people’s expense, both via pocketing taxes and inflating prices in the supermarkets of Australia, Britain, Europe and North America

To the list of certainties in life, such as death and taxes, we can add the fact that farmers will clamour for protection and subsidies. That is not surprising, but what is surprising is that around the globe, governments of all persuasions, whatever their nature, are willing to obey the demands of their farm lobbies.

A typical example of this is the recently concluded free trade agreement between Australia and the United States. Much of the agreement is actually devoted to excluding certain products from free trade. One such product is sugar, which was excluded at the behest of the US sugar producers lobby. That exclusion, in turn, provoked such an outcry by Australian sugar producers that the Australian government felt obliged to provide subsidies for the Australian sugar farmers.

From these actions, one can conclude that the political clout of the US sugar producers is much greater then that of sugar consumers, such as confectionery manufacturers. And yet, this is but a manifestation of a trend which is global. All over the world, governments are all too willing to knuckle down and obey the demands of their farm lobbies. That politicians do this, and run the risk of enraging urban electorates, speaks volumes about the organization of farm lobbies, and, indeed, it also shows how disorganised free trade proponents are. These guys know all the tricks. In Japan, the rice farmers are especially well organised, and Japan is famous for expensive food. French farmers are famous for rioting to get their way. American sugar producers have the ear of Congress; and US cattle farmers know that one of their own is in the White House. In Australia, most tariffs are gone but the farm lobbies have become adept at using the quarantine regulations to keep competition away.


How happy are people in Japan that they have to pay $120 per mellon?

Farmers are also adept at getting governments to distort the free market for their benefit. One of the more outrageous distortions is in water, essential for irrigation, which farmers are getting clever at getting their hands on at dirt cheap, and manipulated, prices. This is a big issue in southern California, and in Australia, where excessive irrigation is having a negative impact on the health of the Murray River, at the expense of urban consumers. No one seems game to tell the farmers to pay their way. In Australia, at least, this stinks of hypocrisy, as the local farmers lobby has been very loud in shouting for free market efficiency for everyone else. The farmer’s federation was very active in the waterfront dispute of 1998, which saw market competition make Australia’s ports competitive for the first time, to the benefit of farmers.

How do farmers get away with this? One has to admit that they have worked herd to get into the strong position that they are in. I am sure that they realise that it does not matter that the intellectual case for protection is puerile, as long as the political case for protection is unarguable. This cause is helped by cultural arguments about the place of the farmer in the life of the nation. This argument strikes a chord all over the world.

This does not change the fact that farming is a business and the rule in business is generally that the prizes go to the smartest and the best run. Nations that mollycoddle their farmers with tariffs do themselves no favours in the long run. I actually heard an Australian farmer admit this on the radio in about 2000, talking about a US farm subsidy bill. He agreed it was bad for Australian farmers that were trying to break into US markets, but he felt it was good for Australian farmers in a global sense, as it kept US farmers from restructuring the way they farmed. Alas, this remains very much a minority view.

How can free trade advocates make headways in these protectionist times? I think it is important to keep making the intellectual case for free trade in food, easy as that is. However, it is also important to make the political case to. It might be time, perhaps, to revive the Anti-Corn Law League, and make it a global organization. It seems to me that the only way to get through to legislators is to defeat them at the ballot box. However once this has been done a few times, the others will fall into line. So that is the political challenge we face – to make it clear to legislators that they will pay an electoral price for their protectionist views.

Scott Wickstein

1 = with apologies to the Rev. John Knox.

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12 comments to First blast of the trumpet against the Monstrous Regiments of Farmers1

  • I’m sure I’m not the only person that thought the handling of the foot and mouth crisis a couple of years ago showed the political influence of the farming lobby, in particular the way large sections of the non-farming rural economy (especially tourism) were effectively shut down for months.

    I remember some farming persons on usenet advocating the quarantining of entire villages (mostly of non-farmers). The fact that farmers believed governments would contemplate such a thing shows how much power the farming lobby thinks they’ve got.

  • David Gillies

    Yeah. Bloody farmers. If it rains then they screech that their crops are going to be washed out. If it’s sunny they complain that they’ll be destroyed by drought. Everythings going to hell in a handbasket and they’re on the verge of starvation; can they have another handout? Then they buy a new Range Rover. If you can’t make farming pay, then bugger off and do something more profitable. I didn’t see why the miners should have held the nation to ransom, and the same goes for agricultural workers. Three times as many people work in hotels and restaurants than in agricultural production, but we don’t have some monstrous Department for Hoteliers and Restaurant Affairs (although no doubt the paper-pushers would love to see one).

  • Brock

    What about farming makes this possible? Why does the electorate continue to put up with Farmer’s antics when they won’t do the same for miners or steel workers?

    Here in the US my first insinct would be to say because of the Senate. Wide-open, low-pop-density States like Wyoming or North Dakota barely qualify for one Congressman by population, but they still have two Senators, just like everyone else. You can’t pass a bill unless the Mid-west is on board, and they aren’t going to be on board if its anti-Farm.

    But that doesn’t really hold water.

    Even in Wyoming there are more non-farmers than farmers, they just aren’t up in arms about it. And why does it persist in countries like Britain and Australia? Why Japan? It seems to be universal. In fact, is that ANY developed nation which does not protect its farmers? Seriously, I would love an example of one, and preferable how they got that way.

    It would be really depressing to think this is some unalterable part of the human psyche. I mean, c’mon, they’re less than 3% of the population. We should be able to take them!

  • Andrew


    You could say the same of any minority interest group. The silent majority don’t really see the consequences of bowing to the vocal minority, so the more vocal group get their way. So yes, I think it is some unalterable (at least in the short term) part of the human psyche. That socialist dogma takes a long time to filter out of the collective cultural identity (for want of a better term…)

    Ask an economist and they would probably tell you that it could make sense to subsidise farming as it is crucial in terms of national defense. I’m not sure that I’d buy that argument.

    I’m not sure that Britain actually protects its farmers that much. We’re too busy protecting the French farmers.


  • ed

    I’d suggest that things work the way they do simply due to provisioning for possible wartime disruption. That’s generally why a domestic farming industry is considered essential to almost any nation. While you can do without gasoline for the car or electricity for the A/C unit, not being able to feed your children is a bit of a problem.

    Some amount of domestic food production is a hedge against such a potentiality. How effective it is who really knows.

  • Even if there were no agricultural subsidies at all, the US would produce more food than it needs and would remain a net exporter of food. America has lots of suitable land for farming, and lots of expertise and technology allowing America to farm it very efficiently. In the case of a prolongued war preventing food imports or exports (which strikes me as almost inconceivable in this day and age anyway) then America’s diet might lose a little variety, but the thought of American not being self-sufficient in food strikes me as ludicrous, subsidy or non subsidy. The “self-sufficiency in wartime” argument for subsidies may apply to Japan and some other countries, but it certainly does not apply in the US, or in Australia, or in most other countries that subsidise their farmers in my opinion. (Get rid of the CAP, and the crops being farmed in Europe would certainly change, probably Europe would start importing a higher proportion of its meat, and the number of people working in agriculture would certainly drop considerably, but Europe’s total agricultural output would not drop very much at all I suspect).

    It may well be that the subsidies came into being as a consequence of wars, but at this pont they are usually merely an excuse for a self-perpetuating vested interest to but its nose in the public-subsidy trough. They are unusually good at selling the argument for subsidies though – lots of pseudo-mystical crap about tradition and connections to the land etc. Yes, it is not nice if you are a farmer and you lose your job because technology has changed. But it also isn’t nice if you work in a factory and lose your job for the same reason.

  • Verity

    Michael – I think ed was saying that the threat of wartime disruption to food production 60 years ago was how the thin end of the wedge. I don’t think that’s the excuse they’d use now. In fact, one wonders what excuse the do use now.

    This farming racket is all the more despicable because they shut out perfectly respectable producers from Third World countries. These guys cannot get a look-in to the US or the EU which just shrieks of injustice. A lot of their produce is tastier, because less factory farming, than what’s produced in European countries or the US. Who wouldn’t prefer a small, sweet banana from Ivory Coast to a cotton wool behemoth from Hawaii? (Actually, Ivory Coast gets a pretty fair deal because France speaks up for its former colonies.)

    Tim Hall: “The fact that farmers believed governments would contemplate such a thing shows how much power …”. Do you really believe Tony Blair would not have contemplated such a thing if he’d thought he could get away with it? What magnificent power for a control freak. I would guess it was fear of “human rights” cases rather than any inherent respect for the electorate that prevented this from happening. Just look at the panicky, inept way he handled this so-called “crisis”.

  • ed


    1. Yes Verity is correct.

    The argument over wartime food supply was the primary reasoning behind such incentives. This same argument is used today because it’s not very difficult at all to disrupt food supplies. While people can make do without most things, food is rather an essential. For those inclined to make pithy statements about fat Americans I’ll point out that there aren’t many people, American or not, in the world who will enjoy letting their kids go hungry.

    Food supplies are rather fragile. A case in point is the fairly recent strike at the Pacific coastal ports. This caused an enormous ripple effect in the food distribution network that took weeks to settle down. Now imagine that same effect at every port. The results would be very serious.

    Another aspect is high seas piracy, which is on the rise particularly in Indonesia. The avereage container ship or freighter doesn’t carry much in the way of a crew nor does it have any real ability to defend itself. If someone were inclined to do so they could establish themselves in a program to systematically board and scuttle cargo ships, loaded with food, bound for the USA. This would cause secondary effects on the commodities markets and greatly fluctuate food prices.

    Disease or politics:
    Another problem with relying excessively on foreign food sources is that any sort of disruption due to disease, hoof & mouth as an example, or politics, Zimbabwe as another example, could play havoc with domestic food availability and prices. Additionally if food production were consolidated into a few significant sources then those sources would have an extraordinary amount of control over American foreign policy.


  • stevem

    The $120 melons in Japan are a fine example of reductio ad absurdum. In Japan the farmers are the government. If you want to get anywhere in politics there, you have to have been born into one of the farming clans. This in a country where agriculture contibutes about 3% of GDP. Why do they put up with it? Go figure.

  • David

    As someone from a farming background, I have to say that the substance of Guessed Writer’s argument is correct. There is no justification for a subsidy to benefit one particular interest group. The whole system of EU subsidies is totally ludicrous anway, as it pays farmers for not growing anything and it seems to benefit inefficient French peasant farmers who should have gone out of business ages ago.

    But in Britain at least, planning laws prevent farmers from doing anything with their land but farm it, and they are expected to offer a wide range of services for which they receive no profit. They provide havens for thousands of wildlife species and a vast outdoor leisure arena for the benefit of ramblers and the tourist industry, and preserve a historic landscape with a strong aesthetic appeal. It’s true that in the 1970s and early 1980s a lot of hedges were ripped out, but now the trend has been reversed and farmers are planting trees and hedges everywhere. Some 80% of the trees that are over 200 years old in Europe are still to be found in Britain.

    If Britain were some ideal libertarian state and farmers were expected only to pursue their own profit, most of southern England would be a vast suburb, the rest of the land would be a treeless prairie like Nebraska and much of the wildlife would be extinct. Not many people would accept that, although lower property prices would probably be welcomed.

  • most of southern England would be a vast suburb, the rest of the land would be a treeless prairie like Nebraska and much of the wildlife would be extinct. Not many people would accept that, although lower property prices would probably be welcomed

    That works for me, though as trees and woodland have value to many people, the notion they would all be destroyed is not really supportable unless the state is the one doing the destroying (it was after all the state building a vast wooden navy for several centuries which largely cleared Britain of its forests). I would like to see Kent paved over all the way to Dover and people free to generate wealth and prosperity. And yes, I am deadly serious.

  • If it is desirable to spend a public subsidy on preventing England from turning into a treeless prairie (and I am not arguing here whether it is or isn’t, although you can guess my view) then the subsidy should be paid explicitely for that. Indirect subsidies always cost more, always create a class or rent-seekers who form an obstacle to their elimination, and in addition are very hard to argue about politically because usually no two people can agree as to what is the actual aim of the subsidy.