UK To Reveal Farm Subsidy Recipients
(Washington, DC, Jan. 7) — Days after its new Freedom of Information law took effect, and spurred by a joint request from The Guardian newspaper of London and the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) a London-based think tank on global issues, and a landmark 2004 report by international aid charity Oxfam, the United Kingdom will for the first time disclose the identity of recipients of some $6.4 billion in annual farm subsidy payments.
That means the Queen of England and the rest of the royal family, along with other large and often titled land owners in Great Britain, will join the ranks of unlikely "farmers" on this side of the Atlantic whose receipt of farm subsidies has roiled the farm policy debate in recent years and built momentum for reforms. In the US, farmers receiving subsidies range from basketball star Scottie Pippen, to the John Hancock insurance company, to financial services magnate Charles Schwab.
The decision was announced on Wednesday by Lord Whitty, the UK's minister of agriculture, at an agriculture conference in Oxford, England.
"The United States has disclosed information about subsidy recipients for many years, and the information has increased pressure for reform of farm policy here," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). "We commend the UK for taking this step to make the public's subsidies public knowledge, and expect that the disclosures will spur new thinking and reform momentum in the UK. It will also pressure other European countries to disclose the beneficiaries of their farm subsidies, lending further support to reform on both sides of the Atlantic — a key to advancing conservation investments in water quality, wildlife habitat and farmland protection," Cook said.
Jack Thurston, Senior Research Associate at FPC, the London-based think tank that has coordinated the UK campaign said: "We have been calling for public disclosure of farm subsidies for several years so this is a major breakthrough. I have also made a formal request to the European Agriculture Commissioner that this kind of openness be extended across the European Union. With farm subsidy payments accounting for nearly half of the entire EU budget, European citizens have a right to know where and how their money is being spent. Openness and transparency will stimulate a constructive public debate over the priorities, performance and future direction of agriculture, food and rural policies."
Experts predict that most of the UK payments will be concentrated in the hands of a relative few very large agribusinesses, as they are in the United States, where EWG analyses have found 10 percent of the recipients collected 72 percent of the subsidies between 1995 and 2003. EWG maintains a massive, online database of US farm subsidy payments that has drawn hundreds of millions of searches since it was first published in late 2001 (http://www.ewg.org/farm/). The database is built from over 100 million US Department of Agriculture computer records and lists virtually every agricultural subsidy payment and who received it during the last nine years. The information on the EWG site was obtained through the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
A pioneering 2004 study by Oxfam, Dumping on the World: How EU sugar policies hurt poor countries, estimated farm subsidies for some large U.K. sugar producers and concluded that payments were highly concentrated among major British agribusiness operations. The report found that the 27 largest sugar-beet farms in the UK received an average of $387,000 annually. It is available here:
Another 2004 Oxfam report, "Cereal Injustice under the CAP in Britain", found that 2 percent of land holdings in the UK account for more than 25 percent of agricultural subsidies. This report estimates that Britain's richest man, the Duke of Westminster, receives $608,000 in cereal subsidies annually. It is available at
The UK decision to disclose farm subsidy recipients bears similarities to events that led to publication of subsidy payees in the United States under pressure from a public interest group and journalists. The Environmental Working Group began analyzing US farm subsidy recipients in the early 1990s, through a series of highly detailed Freedom of Information Act requests that identified payees by nine-digit zip code, but not by name. EWG's research, maintained in an in-house database that pre-dated general public access to the World Wide Web, formed the basis for hundreds of news stories leading up to the 1996 Farm Bill.
In 1996, and citing EWG's requests, a federal judge ruled in favor of The Washington Post in a lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture that sought the names of cotton subsidy recipients (to read the ruling, go to http://www.ewg.org/farm/data/foia.php). The government did not appeal the decision, and EWG used the precedent to obtain millions of names and payment data for farm subsidies, which the group made available to journalists beginning in 2001. In September 2001, a pioneering computer investigation by the Associated Press was published, reporting the results of its review of farm subsidy payments. In November of that year, EWG made its farm subsidy database public. It immediately generated tens of millions of searches and intense media coverage.
Over 18 million pages on the site have been searched just since Nov. 29, 2004, when EWG updated the database.
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