It’s worth listening when an expert who has not been slow to criticise the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy speaks up for it.
High farmer support prices that kept the price of food high in Europe were often targeted by Alan Matthews, when he was the professor of European agricultural policy at Trinity College, Dublin.
But that was in the 1990s and earlier, before Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler started to transform the CAP.
Now Professor Emeritus, Matthews continues to keep a close eye on the CAP, and makes his views known on the www.capreform.eu blog
In his latest contribution, he has revisited the question of what role the agriculture policy continues to play in poverty in the EU.
He made a submission to the Commission on Food and Poverty, which has been established by the Fabian Society in the UK, to examine how poverty relates to the food system.
The Commission has found that many people on low incomes are unable to access affordable, nutritious food.
Changes to household incomes, food prices and the price of other essential living costs, had made food less affordable for those on low incomes.
The price of food in the UK began to rise from 2006.
As healthy diets became more expensive, poor households responded by buying cheaper, less nutritious food.
Those on the lowest incomes are eating less fruit and vegetables, more salt, more sugar, more saturated fat and more processed foods.
The poor are one and a half times more likely to suffer from diabetes, and while child obesity is falling dramatically in high-income UK households, it is still unrelenting in low-income households.
But the CAP is no longer the culprit, says Matthews.
He argues that the impact of agricultural policy on food prices is now much more limited, other than for commodities such as beef, poultrymeat, potatoes, tomatoes and possibly fruit, where high tariff protection keeps prices within the EU higher than they otherwise need to be.
Previously, farm incomes were supported by high product prices.
Farmgate prices in the EU were up to twice world market levels, and in some cases (such as sugar) even higher.
This hit consumers.
The CAP today is a very different animal, according to Alan Matthews.
The stimulus to farm production has been greatly reduced.
Dairy quotas went last April, sugar quotas will go in October, 2017, which should lower prices further.
The farmer’s share of the price the consumer pays is now relatively small.
Using agricultural policy to influence food consumption doesn’t work, says Matthews.
Farmers will be glad to hear the prices they are paid don’t cause food poverty and ill-health.
Matthews suggests instead that nutrition be improved by policies such as tax on fat consumption.
And he says food prices in the medium-term depend heavily on agricultural research to raise farm productivity in a sustainable way.
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