Toward Greener Farm Policies?

The idea that farmers deserve special treatment because they are farmers was never likely to be defensible as a long term justification for state assistance. Policymakers have presented public good and social equity justifications for shielding farmers from world market forces for many decades, but it was not until the late 1980s that an environmental public good rationale was articulated with any great persuasiveness. Conventional farm support, by now under challenge on grounds of its spiralling budgetary costs (the CAP was absorbing over 70% of the total EU budget in 1985), its bias in favor of larger producers (20% of the largest European farm operators were receiving 80% of the subsidy), and its trade distorting consequences for trading partners, began to look unsustainable in its current form.

Farm policy critics, geographers among them, sensed that a new policy settlement was possible which would rebalance agricultural support away from production and farmer income support per se and toward green payment and rural development schemes of various complexions. The US was among the first to experiment with this new approach, establishing a Conservation Title under the 1984 Farm Bill and creating a 20 million ha Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). This sought to tackle soil erosion and off site damage by paying farmers to take highly erodible lands out of intensive agriculture use. In the EU, farmers were also being offered agri environmental contracts that subsidized the adoption of agricultural stewardship and the management of landscapes and biodiversity. By 2000, one in every five European farmers was in receipt of an agri environmental payment and over 3 million ha had been enrolled in national programs. Rather than reserving land by taking it out of production, here the focus was on 'working lands' and a variety of subsidy schemes were deployed to influence the way farmers managed features like hedgerows, woodland, and seminatural grassland.

Despite important differences in emphasis and approach – Europeans have been more concerned to encourage farmers, many of them economically marginal, to manage established agricultural landscapes and seminatural habitats, whereas North Americans to minimize the soil eroding and polluting effects of intensive production – it has been observed that in both settings a 'provider gets' rather than a 'polluter pays' philosophy tended to prevail. Payments went to farmers as the client group because they possessed the property rights and occupied the land. They were also regarded as deserving recipients and the best people to manage and protect the habitats, landscapes, and resources of the countryside. Agri environmental contracts proved successful in enrolling large numbers of farmers into a new land stewardship community, and this appeared to revive the public view of farmers as providers of first resort of rural environmental goods. Moreover, the agricultural policy community seemed convinced by the tactical argument that paying farmers to produce public goods offered a publicly more defensible basis for agricultural support than income support to a supposedly beleaguered occupational group. Under this new public goods model, the role of government is not to support agriculture for its own sake but rather to contract farmers and other land managers directly to supply the environmental goods and services that markets, if left to their own devices, will fail to deliver.

Supporters of the agri environmental turn in farm policy point to the huge expansion of environmental management on farms that the expedient of 'paying farmers to produce countryside' has made possible. The EU, for instance, regards agri environmental programmes as one of the key mechanisms for achieving its biodiversity protection targets, while the US continues to invest significant resources in the CRP and successor programmes such as the Conservation Security Program. Australia, a relative newcomer in this field, appears similarly committed to a version of the stewardship model in its attempts to deal at state and regional level with a legacy of environmental degradation created by overexploitation and intensification (though see further discussion of the conflict with neoliberal priorities below).

Agri environmental policy is now an established feature of the international policy scene and the subject of a substantial academic literature devoted to better understanding and comparing how different incentive structures work, investigating the motives and behavior of the farmers who chose to be guided by them and assessing the environmental outcomes achieved as a result. Doubts remain, however, about the environmental effectiveness of the measures themselves and the advisability of continuing to pursue conservation goals within an agricultural policy setting. A long standing criticism of agrienvironmental policy measures is that they have been grafted onto an apparatus of state support that remains fundamentally productivist in the way it operates and is justified. The decoupling of agricultural subsidies from farmers' production decision making that has been the hallmark of the farm policy reforms of the 1990s has eased this contradiction somewhat. The substitution of direct income transfers for open ended price support, for example, is generally agreed to have reduced the incentive for operators to maximize subsidy receipts by increasing output. Measures such as the EU's single farm payment (introduced as part of the Agenda 2000 reforms of the CAP) present other difficulties, with a complex system of 'cross compliance' now in place designed to build environmental safeguards into a measure which is actually about maintaining farmers' incomes rather than their environmental capacities.

So far as agri environmental contracts themselves are concerned, agriculture ministries continue to find it difficult to target incentives in ways that maximize environmental value for money and too many schemes have been operated as disguised income support measures for marginal farmers. Governments face a dilemma in deciding how strictly prescribed agri environmental schemes should be – do they impose tightly prescribed entry and delivery conditions on payments and risk a reduced rate of uptake and a disproportionate burden of administrative costs under a 'narrow but deep' strategy or do they opt for a 'broad but shallow' approach which aims for maximum enrolments but seeks only modest changes to farming practice in return? This is one of many debates concerning the 'fitness for purpose' of agri environmental policy tools in a period of intensifying competition for resources and growing public scrutiny of spending decisions.