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Agricultural subsidy Definition

Agricultrual subsidy

An agricultural subsidy (also called an agricultural incentive) is a government incentive paid to agribusinesses, agricultural organizations and farms to supplement their income, manage the supply of agricultural commodities, and influence the cost and supply of such commodities.

Examples of such commodities include: wheat, feed grains (grain used as fodder, such as maize or corn, sorghum, barley and oats), cotton, milk, rice, peanuts, sugar, tobacco, oilseeds such as soybeans and meat products such as beef, pork, and lamb and mutton.

A 2021 study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization found $540 Billion was given to farmers every year between 2013 and 2018 in global subsidies. The study found these subsidies are harmful in numerous ways. In wealthy countries, they damage health by promoting the overconsumption of meat.

In under-developed countries they encourage overconsumption of low-nutrition staples. Subsidies also contribute to the climate crisis, by encouraging deforestation; and they also drive inequality because smallholder farmers, many of whom are women, are excluded. According to UNDP head, Achim Steiner, redirecting subsidies would boost the livelihoods of 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide by creating a more level playing field with large-scale agricultural enterprises.

Agricultural subsidy history

On the earliest known interventions in farming markets was the English Corn Laws, which regulated the import and export of grain in Great Britain and Ireland for centuries. The laws were repealed in 1846. Agricultural subsidies in the twentieth century were originally designed to stabilize markets, help low-income farmers, and aid rural development. In the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, as part of the New Deal in 1933. At the time the economy was in a severe depression and farmers were experiencing the lowest agricultural prices since the 1890s. The plan was to increase prices for a range of agricultural products by paying farmers to destroy some of their livestock or not use some of their land – known as land idling. This led to a reduction in supply and smaller agricultural surpluses. Initially seven products were controlled: (corn, wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, tobacco and milk). Unlike traditional subsidies that promote the growth of products, this process boosted agricultural prices by limiting the growth of these crops.

In Europe, Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was launched in 1962 to improve agricultural productivity. According to the European Commission, the act aims to Support farmers and improve agricultural productivity, so that consumers have a stable supply of affordable food

  • Ensure that European Union (EU) farmers can make a reasonable living
  • Help tackling climate change and the sustainable management of natural resources
  • Maintain rural areas and landscapes across the EU
  • Keep the rural economy alive promoting jobs in farming, agri-foods industries and associated sectors

The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, also known as the 2002 Farm Bill, addressed a great variety of issues related to agriculture, ecology, energy, trade, and nutrition. Signed after the September 11th attacks of 2001, the act directs approximately $16.5 billion of government funding toward agricultural subsidies each year. This funding has had a great effect on the production of grains, oilseeds, and upland cotton. The United States paid allegedly around $20 billion in 2005 to farmers in direct subsidies as “farm income stabilization” via farm bills. Overall agricultural subsidies in 2010 were estimated at $172 billion by a European agricultural industry association; however, the majority of this estimate consists of food stamps and other consumer subsidies, so it is not comparable to the 2005 estimate.

Agricultural subsidy laws

Agricultural policies of the United States are changed, incrementally or more radically, by Farm Bills that are passed every five years or so. Statements about how the program works might be right at one point in time, at best, but are probably not sufficient for assessing agricultural policies at other points in time. For example, a large part of the support to program crops has not been linked directly to current output since the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-127). Instead, these payments were tied to historical entitlement, not current planting. For example, it is incorrect to attribute a payment associated with wheat base area to wheat production now because that land might be allocated to any of a number of permitted uses, including held idle. Over time, successive Farm Bills have linked these direct payments to market prices or revenue, but not to production. In contrast, some programs, like the Marketing Loan Program that can create something of a floor price that producers receive per unit sold, are tied to production. That is, if the price of wheat in 2002 was $3.80, farmers would get an extra 58¢ per bushel (52¢ plus the 6¢ price difference). Fruit and vegetable crops are not eligible for subsidies.

Corn was the top crop for subsidy payments prior to 2011. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandated that billions of gallons of ethanol be blended into vehicle fuel each year, guaranteeing demand, but US corn ethanol subsidies were between $5.5 billion and $7.3 billion per year. Producers also benefited from a federal subsidy of 51 cents per gallon, additional state subsidies, and federal crop subsidies that had brought the total to 85 cents per gallon or more. However, the federal ethanol subsidy expired 31 December 2011. (US corn-ethanol producers were shielded from competition from cheaper Brazilian sugarcane-ethanol by a 54-cent-per-gallon tariff; however, that tariff also expired 31 December 2011.)


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