19 Jul 2008

EU endorses farm aid plan for Africa

8:00 am on 19 July 2008

The European Commission has backed a plan to give €1 billion to farmers in Africa next year to try and boost agricultural production and tackle high food prices.

At least eight European Union member countries, including Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands, have questioned the legality of the scheme, but have not challenged the merit of the idea.

The OE cash, largely the result of underspending and leeway in the bloc's massive agriculture budget, comprises €750 million earmarked for 2008 and the remainder for 2009. This year's amount could be given retrospectively from mid-June.

EU ministers and the European Parliament, which has also voiced doubts about using unspent EU farm funds, will have to agree to the plan before it can enter into force. The commission would like money to start flowing in early January 2009.

If approved, the money will be channelled to developing countries through international or regional organisations, such as the United Nations and World Food Programme.

Four areas of financial support are envisaged, the main two being to improve access to farming "inputs" such as fertilisers and seeds and ways to improve agricultural capacity and production.

But the most difficult debate may be how to set eligibility criteria for recipient countries and how much cash will be allocated by country. Those negotiations should be concluded by December, the commission says.

Criteria are expected to include how much food a country produces to feed itself, its political stability and social vulnerability, its level of food price inflation and reliance on food imports - including shipments of food aid.

So far, for the 2008 farm budget, the EU has been heavily underspending on classic market support measures such as export subsidies, public intervention buying of staple commodities and subsidised private storage, EU officials say.

Agriculture eats up more than 40% of the EU's annual budget, which for 2008 is planned at €120.7 billion.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who has warned that the global food price crisis could drive 100 million people into extreme poverty, urged EU member countries to quickly approve the proposal.

Kofi Annan, the former UN chief who now chairs the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa that helps small-scale African farmers, said the proposal was an important step to improving food security across the country.