Farm subsidies don't get a tremendous amount of news coverage and now it's clear why: a lot of the data has remained out of sight until very recently. The numbers are embarrassing, not to say, unfair.
In the US, we have Environmental Working Group to thank for enlightening us on this issue. It has an easy-to-use database to find out who is enriched by subsidies. WaPo has also done a fine series on this issue too, with a recent article this week detailing USDA guaranteed loans that paid for resort attractions near major cities.
In Europe, another project is underway that has forced open the farm welfare rolls and - surprise! - revealed that most go to large farms just as in the US. "Farmsubsidy.org, which campaigns for full disclosure about who gets what under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), calculates that 85 per cent of the €32.5bn handed out in direct payments went to just 18 per cent of Europe's farmers in 2005," the London Observer reported recently.
Farmsubsidy.org was started by a former UK official fed up with the secrecy surrounding subsidy payments in the European Community. According to the Guardian,
The idea that all this should become public originated in 2000 - not from a journalist but from a Labour special adviser, Jack Thurston, who worked for Nick Brown, then agriculture minister. One afternoon, fed up with a rather tedious EU agriculture negotiation, Brown demanded from his permanent secretary, Sir Richard Packer, a list of the top 20 people getting all these EU subsidies. After much trepidation Sir Richard produced the list and allowed the minister to glance at it for 10 minutes. Thurston remembers looking over his shoulder and seeing the royals and multinationals heading the list.
When Brown asked to take it away, the request was refused and he was warned that to publish such information breached the Data Protection Act. After Thurston left his job he wrote a pamphlet for the Foreign Policy Centre think-tank challenging the need for the subsidies and calling for the details to the published. At the same time, a Danish journalist, Nils Mulvad, used a provision under the Danish freedom of information act to demand the release of documents sent to the tax authorities that listed EU subsidy payments. At the third attempt, in 2004, he won his case and Denmark became the first country in the EU to release subsidy payment data. Last year he was voted European Journalist of the Year in European Voice's awards.
Journalistic sleuthing through the farm subsidy rolls has also won attention in the US. Last month, the IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors, awarded Farmsubsidy.org its highest medal for investigative reporting. IRE published the following judges comments:
Nils Mulvad, a Danish investigative journalist, led a two-year effort to open archives all over Europe to expose the closely guarded secrets of farm subsidies. With help from journalist Brigitte Alfter and researcher Jack Thurston, records on subsidies were acquired from 17 of 25 of the European Union countries. The resulting information was put on a website and made available to reporters and others throughout the EU. It resulted in a number of important stories, including showing how millionaires were among the top recipients and how dairy subsidies were undermining farmers in the Third World. A truly important and groundbreaking effort that will pave the way for the opening of other European Union records to the benefit of journalists worldwide.
And not just journalists, I would add, but also farmers and the public.
- Samuel Fromartz