Common Market: The Farmer's Dutch Uncle

  • Share
  • Read Later

Farmers cross pitchforks with their governments almost everywhere, but the dueling is particularly spirited in Europe's Common Market. In the six member nations, farmers constitute a politically powerful 16% of the population and have extracted uniformly lavish price supports. This has encouraged overproduction and bulging surpluses of eggs, pork, wheat, apples and practically all other foods. The cost of underwriting the cornucopia reached $4.5 billion in 1968, and could mount to $10 billion by 1980. As trade unions, consumer groups and other proponents of farm reform point out, that is quite a bite.

Of course, the farmers resist change. Now they are training their ire on a blunt, strong-minded Dutchman who has urged a sweeping, basic change. He is the Common Market's agricultural chief, Sicco Mansholt, 60, whose proposal to the Common Market's Council of Ministers two weeks ago has made him one of the most controversial men on the Continent. In letters, irate European farmers have damned him as "Bolshevist" and a "mad dog." Mansholt replies coolly: "I have a big wastebasket." Cut the Glut. Mansholt has called for an immediate attack on Europe's agricultural surpluses, particularly of sugar and dairy products. The glut of butter, for example, amounts to 400,000 tons, and is known among Germans as the Butterberg (butter mountain). Mansholt wants to cut the butter support price—now 790 a Ib.—by 33%. He also advocates reducing dairy herds by 500,000 heads by paying farmers $300 for every cow they slaughter, a proposal reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt's decision during the Depression to slaughter baby pigs as a way of both feeding the hungry and trimming pork surpluses.*

The basic trouble with European agriculture is that it is fragmented and inefficient. The average European farm is less than 25 acres (v. at least 350 acres in the U.S.), and three out of four plots are too small to maintain a family. To effect a change, Mansholt aims to reduce the number of European farmers within the next decade from 10 million to 5,000,000. He suggests that governments use financial incentives to induce old farmers to retire early and to voluntarily sell their farms to neighbors. That would help to meld tiny plots into bigger, more efficient "modern farm units."

The U.S. and other nonmarket countries generally welcome Mansholt's plan as a way of dealing with the farm surpluses that the Six have lately been trying to reduce through high-pressure selling abroad. But Washington is unhappy over Mansholt's call for a high tax on vegetable-oil products, designed to encourage Europeans to switch from margarine to butter. The U.S. contends that the levy would violate international prohibitions against the use of domestic taxes for protectionist purposes. In any case, it would certainly threaten the U.S.'s $450 million-a-year sales of soybean products to Western Europe. The U.S.'s largest farm exports to Common Market countries come from the lowly soybean.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2