Alan Guebert

DAVID ZALAZNIK/Journal Star Alan Guebert.

If you believe the 2007 U.S. farm bill process is complicated — 2 million farmers, 435 representatives, 100 senators, innumerable ideas — it’s a simple soufflé compared to the vat of sausage the European Union must grind through beginning in 2008 as it continues to reform its Common Agriculture Policy.

That message came through clearly as representatives from more than 40 North American, European and African farm and food organizations met May 14 and 15 in Washington, D.C. for a “global dialogue” on how U.S. and EU ag policies affect farmers the world over.

(Full disclosure: As the only journalist invited, I participated in a two-hour discussion on the 2007 farm bill.)

The goal was to find common ground where the two, biggest farm policy elephants might stand together to, first, not harm each other’s farmers and, second, stop stomping on the rest of the world’s farmers.

That’s a lovely, almost-crazy, idea but it’s not a unique one. “You think American and European politicians don’t already have their own ideas?” one EU participant asked me. “What do you think the WTO is?”

It’s a sharp point rarely considered by American farmers and ranchers who march lockstep to a free trade tune composed by agbiz, ag politicos and ag groups.

And we do with nary a pause to acknowledge that hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars — for price supports, conservation, export development, research, crop insurance, biofuels, nutrition programs — have contributed probably far more than trade to American net farm income in the last 20 years.

At the same time, we portray the EU and its rich CAP as the biggest monkey wrencher in global agriculture: CAP builds butter mountains in Europe; CAP heavily subsidizes exports; CAP pays farmers for crops Europe don’t use.

What has been overlooked, even purposely avoided, in the United States, however, is the last decade’s massive overhaul of CAP has flipped those commonly-held views out the window.

For example, the EU no longer is a group of arguing nations nuzzling the Atlantic. Instead, it’s an economic and political bloc of 27 nations with 490 million citizens — including 13 million farmers — that stretches from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

Most of the expansion has occurred since 1993. Back then, the EU-12 (12 nations) spent about $45 billion on CAP. In 2004, a year after key CAP reforms, the then-two-times-bigger EU-25 spent just 20 percent more, about $57 billion, on agriculture despite a near-tripling of its farms and farmers.

(Over half of today’s EU-27 farmers are located in three recently-admitted nations — Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.)

How CAP money is spent has undergone an even bigger change. In 1991, 30 percent of all CAP cash, or about $13 billion then, was poured into export subsidies while the remaining 70 percent, about $30 billion, went to direct farm subsidies.

In 2004, though, more CAP money was spent on rural development programs, about $6.5 billion, than either export subsidies ($5.2 billion) or price supports ($6 billion). CAP’s biggest line item now is decoupled, direct payments — very WTO legal — to farmers. In 2004, those payments totaled about $40 billion.

Even bigger changes are ahead. A second round of reform is slated to begin in 2008 with a total remake due by 2013. The challenge for the EU will be keeping its inward-looking farm policy — maintaining its many and beloved food and farm cultures — while abiding by a presumed WTO deal.

If our 2007 farm bill debate is any indication, however, we’ll still be griping about CAP rather than working with our EU friends for the betterment of all farmers around the world.


Alan Guebert’s “Farm and Food File” is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. Contact him at