>>UK food policy reform must now be a priority… Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City University

A new political geography of food is emerging. The failure of the World Trade Organisation talks at Cancun was seismic and could challenge powerful interests within the UK, where the work of civil groups towards the deliverance of a more socially-just food economy has now become hard politics. It can no longer be dismissed as the irritating whingeing of bleeding heart liberals.

Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union over a decade ago, policy deals were inevitably overshadowed by the presence of the elephant in the room, the world’s hyperpower - the US.

Only the European Union seemed able to challenge it. The EU first flexed its muscles when, with the US, it moulded the 1994 GATT agriculture agreement to suit the two of them. They promised to constrain subsidies.

The period since has shown how sticky that agreement was. Independent analyses by NGOs such as Oxfam and Action Aid punctured the aura of invincibility from within. The Catholic Fund for Overseas Development’s (CAFOD) calculation that each EU cow receives $2 a day in subsidies was quoted by any politician who wanted to have a go at the EU, and was seized upon in the US.

But no-one in the rich world suspected that joint US-EU world food power status might be threatened. In food, there were two hyperpowers.

Those of us watching world food policy in the making wondered where this duopoly would go. Could the EU become more powerful than the US?

Was the duopoly any better than the old Cold War order, under which the USSR postured about self-sufficiency while buying millions of tonnes of US grain and other foods to keep alive the mythology of the efficiency of its food economy?

The reality is that the EU and US both have highly subsidised agricultures, out of all proportion to the worth of agriculture in their economies. But Cancun punctured the view that Brussels was as powerful as it believed and demolished US feelings of impregnability.

To the EU and US negotiators’ astonishment, a tough group of 21 countries from the southern hemisphere led by Brazil, China and India questioned the food hyperpowers. It took a hard line. The US and EU simply had to reduce their barriers, cut
subsidies and open up markets to cheaper commodities.

And the group held firm. Previously, coalitions came and went, were broken up, divided and ruled, ‘listened to sense’, buckled under threats. That’s why there was such pleasure around the world at the Cancun failure. Because ‘success’ would have meant continuation of the same biblical rule of ‘to them that have more will be given’, that seems to apply in food policy.

Reform at home is now our priority. And where better to start than the inequity of the Common Agricultural Policy.

A new study by Oxford University for the government has shown just how unequal the EU’s subsidies are in UK terms. Producers in six eastern counties - the
famed ‘barley barons’- take more than £540m out of the £2bn-plus in CAP aid which the UK receives annually.

East Britain’s grain farmers milk £121 from each of us, whereas other farmers get ‘only’ £41 from each taxpayer. Three out of England’s nine regions take half the total CAP subsidy. This is both warped and unjust.

The British government says it wants subsidy cuts. The Oxford study suggests it should put its own house in order.

If the grain barons are so efficient, as the NFU keeps telling us they are, why cannot they stand on their own feet?

Why doesn’t the NFU begin a voluntary refusal campaign, asking its fat cat members not to take the subsidy? Dangerous thoughts.