EU subsidies are destroying cotton farming

Each year at the same time, the same tragicomic scene is played out on the plain of Thessaly, with the following plot and players, as the rest of Greece, look on dumbfounded. The government gives the cotton farmers the entire subsidy granted by the European Union. However, as we shall see, it would have the right not to grant the entire sum, but so far no government has dared to do this. The total sum was agreed on by the previous government at 690 million euros, or 234.6 billion drachmas. The amount agreed upon cannot be increased, as the cotton producers are fully aware, even more so than the government. It was also agreed that the sum would be distributed according to the quantity produced and the number of hectares cultivated. For example, if production totaled 1 million tons, the subsidy would be 69 cents (234.6 drachmas) per kilo. If the cotton fields were particularly blessed or if the farmers cultivated more fields, if the cotton was left out in the rain to get heavier or if cotton was smuggled in from abroad – in other words if, in one way or another, production was increased, for example to 1.1 million tons – then the subsidy per kilo would be less. It is a question of simple arithmetic and common sense. As we shall see below, the reason for the subsidy is inherent in the means of its distribution. Simple arithmetic The agreed total subsidized production fo this year is, if I am not mistaken, 1,060,000 tons. The quantity legally included in the agreed hectares amounts to 1,134,000 tons of cotton. The «legality» of the production is not monitored, and in fact it would be extremely difficult to do this. However, everyone admits that apart from God’s own blessings, other miracles are known to occur, in the manner of the loaves and the fishes. The cotton farmers’ demands, or rather those of the unions, backed by local parliamentary deputies from all parties, is for the additional quantity to be included and subsidized at the «usual» price per kilo, that is, the price arrived at by dividing the total subsidy of 690 million euros with the agreed quantity of 1,060,000 tons. In order to subsidize the additional quantity at the «usual» price, another 23.5-29.3 million euros (8-10 billion drachmas) is needed and the farmers, unionists and deputies of all parties are demanding this sum from the national budget, since the EU will not hand it out. They are demanding this amount, threatening to block the country’s highways with their tractors again at Tempe, just where the road goes up to Ambelakia. Last Tuesday in Larissa, about 2,000 farmers, unionists and deputies from the prefectures of Larissa and Magnesia attended a meeting of the Union of Farming Cooperatives. The predominant slogans were «All the kilos, all the money, without restrictions.» Otherwise, see you in Tempe. The union leadership, affiliated with the New Democracy party, behaved improperly in inviting only the ND deputies, who unfortunately attended, despite the impropriety. The Union of Farming Cooperatives is supposedly a mass social organization that includes all farmers, irrespective of their political affiliations. Reflection of ills One could say that the millions the cotton farmers are demanding from the state budget is negligible compared to the thousands of millions spent on the Olympic Games. You would be right, but that does not absolve us, whether ordinary citizens or the government or parties, of our duty to examine the farmers’ demand independently, particularly the blackmail accompanying it. I believe that this «negligible» issue reflects all the ills that plague our modern Greek society: first of all, the splitting of Greeks into organized minorities that use coercion to make demands, just or unjust, at the expense of society as a whole. If that negligible sum of 23-29 million euros is deducted from the budget to be given to the cotton farmers, it will be taken away from somewhere else, such as education or healthcare. If the national highway is blocked by tractors, this will have a negative effect on the whole of Greece. PASOK bears a great responsibility for these divisions within society, but its populism found willing and enthusiastic imitators in all the other parties. The second problem is that our political system was built and operates upon a divided society and embraces all that society’s conflicting demands, as well as a coercive manner of making demands. Take the amazingly cynical statement by the ND deputy for Larissa, Giorgos Garoufalias, at the Union of Farming Cooperatives meeting: «We have learned to be bullies when fighting a battle, just as we like.» This «heroic» statement was greeted with tumultuous applause. It is true that the minister for agricultural development and food, Evangelos Bassiakos, issued an announcement right after the meeting in Larissa rejecting all the cotton farmers’ demands. This announcement could mean that the government is determined to resist the unreasonable demands and the blackmail and, if necessary, fight the «battle of Tempe» with peaceful and convincing means, appealing to the entire nation and political forces. PASOK is already in a vulnerable position because it will find it difficult to stand up for what it had been denying only yesterday. It is a chance for the government to show how it is determined to govern, with what means and which social and political alliances. Others claim that Bassiakos’s refusal marks the beginning of the government’s negotiations with the unionists, aimed at a compromise in view of the local political cost and so as not to embarrass local party mechanisms. If so, then it will be confronting the same problem again next year. Finally, there is the «Sovietization» of Greek society, that is its widespread and deep dependency on the state, leading to the same moral, political and economic disasters as in countries where it was first implemented. It is presented as populist socialism, but in fact it is a state-fed «socialism» which despite the occasional «militant mobilizations,» has transformed wage-earners, workers and farmers into apathetic observers of the production process, of its productivity and the competitiveness of its products. It is a deeply conservative policy, which might on occasion see the convergence of leftists, centrists and rightist union bosses with the farmers, while politically and ideologically emasculating the «working people» after splitting them into selfish minority guilds incapable of facing the political problem of growth for the people as a whole. Why subsidize? As an example, the cotton subsidies have destroyed production, inflating the production costs by means of state support and making the product non-competitive. The absurdity is that good-quality cotton has always been produced in Greece and at a competitive price. However, it was cultivated on the most suitable fields that provided the highest yields, therefore at a low price. State «protection» and EU funds have allowed the cultivated areas to expand to some 400,000 hectares. Subsidies ensure the viability of farmers on the most unsuitable land, sending costs sky-high but bringing quality down. Just last April, hundreds of hectares were approved as suitable for planting by means of political favors, in addition to those already granted by PASOK. We will never know how many true cotton farmers there are, as distinct from middlemen handling subsidies in cooperation with cotton manufacturers, since there are no inspections, or else they are not feasible. About five years ago, during a similar crisis when the national highway was blocked, a decision was made to set up a farmers’ register. This was never done. The monoculture of wheat was once regarded as typical of the outdated Greek farming industry. After having experienced the «green revolution,» state «protection» and EU funds have brought back monoculture, chiefly in cotton and corn. The international commercial price of cotton is around 23 cents (80 drachmas); Greek cotton costs the state and the EU over 73 cents (250 drachmas). Some ask why we, and the Greek state for that matter, care what it costs the EU. The money from the EU is managed by Greek governments according to the national interest (at least in theory), and using agreed programs. This is money that belongs to the entire Greek nation and it comes at a price, in the form of increased demand for European industrial products. Another question is why the EU subsidizes Greek cotton when it can import it from elsewhere much cheaper. It does so in order to gradually improve cotton crops and support the producer, to safeguard quality and reduce costs, restricting cultivation to the most suitable and profitable land. The way we have been managing the subsidies, precisely the opposite has been happening: Cotton farming has expanded out of control, quality has deteriorated and the average cost has risen so high as to as to make Greek cotton uncompetitive without the subsidies. So the subsidies have not improved the product, but destroyed it. They boost the incomes of the producers and middlemen, encouraging corruption and consumption. They increase the quantities delivered to gins, whether legally or illegally, and then claim «all the money for all the kilos.» Ecological disaster already occurring Last but not least is another repercussion: an ecological catastrophe of biblical proportions threatening fields cultivated with cotton and corn. These two crops demand enormous quantities of water and fertilizers. Drilling for water on the plain of Thessaly is a phenomenon akin to that of illegal construction – there are no restrictions, half of them are illegal and drill-holes go to unknown depths. The water table has dropped so low that some of them have reached depths of 800 meters and are bringing up brackish water. The surrounding mountains have been drained dry, the springs have dried up and sea water is entering the groundwater, leading to desertification. All the parliamentary deputies in Thessaly are demanding the completion of this ecological catastrophe with the diversion of the Acheloos River. The soil is so polluted by fertilizers and other chemicals that local residents can only drink bottled water. The aims of the subsidies include the purification of the soil and the development of water-conserving irrigation systems, yet not one euro has been spent on these aims so far. So much for this year. I imagine that next year we will be writing more on the same subject, again to no avail, unless the threatened Tempe blockade is not confronted with a broad political alliance. All the initiative rests with the government; responsibility is shared by all the political forces.