Farmers set off a giant food fight

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Norwegian farmers’ demands for more financial support and subsidy set off a huge fight over food production at the Parliament this week. Now both the government parties and their opposition are left to rake up the muck, after neither side secured majority support for their farm subsidy proposals.

The relative serenity of a farm outside Oslo was a far cry this week from the quarreling over farm subsidies going on in Parliament. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Norway’s noisy annual process of appeasing the powerful farmers’ lobby has grown particularly unruly this year. The farmers first demanded another NOK 1.45 billion to boost their incomes. The government offered just over NOK 400 million, citing the otherwise generally accepted need for “moderation.” The farmers thus broke off negotiations, leaving the minority government coalition to seek support for its position from its two small support parties in Palriament.

That failed, even though the government’s offer would have yielded pay raises for farmers in line with most all other work groups in Norway. The farmers want much higher raises, and their supporters within the opposition Center Party and Labour Party were keen to deliver. The fight then moved to Parliament.

But then the negotiations that started up last week between the opposition and the small parties derailed as well. Norway’s annual settlements with farmers are so complex and “technical,” admits MP Geir Pollestad of the Center Party, that they’re not easy to understand. His parliamentary committee that’s handling the issue also lacks direct access to the agricultural ministry’s expertise.

Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum is determined to get the best deal possible for his farming constituency. He met new opposition late this week. PHOTO: Stortinget

Pollestad remained confident as late as Wednesday evening that he’d hash out a settlement between the opposition parties and the two parties that otherwise have supported the government for the past four years, the Christian Democrats and Liberals. On Thursday night, however, the Liberals withdrew, claiming that the farmers stood to receive so much that “it would quickly lead to higher food prices” in a country where food prices already are among the highest in the world.

On Friday the small Liberal Party was being assailed by both sides, with the Center Party accusing it of political posturing and the government’s Progress Party calling on it to “take responsibility.” The Liberals’ Andre Skjelstad claimed that’s exactly what they were doing, in an effort to keep Norwegians from having to pay out even more for their milk and meat, for example, than they already are.

“We need a framework that’s higher than what the government offered but one that also represents responsible use of taxpayers’ money,” Skjelstad told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He accused the Center and Labour parties of trying to outbid one another, probably in a bid to win farmers’ votes this fall, and said their proposal would “have led to higher food prices and worse conditions for agriculture on the West Coast, in the mountains and in Northern Norway.”

Liberals try to strike a compromise
While the government was willing to give farmers support worth NOK 410 million, the Christian Democrats were willing to raise that to around NOK 790 million. It’s not clear how much more money the Center and Labour parties wanted to give the farmers.

The Liberals, according to NRK, propose support of around NOK 550 million to NOK 750 million and took that back on Friday to the government coalition’s Progress Party, which controls the agriculture ministry. “I think it’s positive that the Liberals have come back to their government partners,” the Progress Party’s spokesman on agricultural policy, Morten Ørsal Johansen, told NRK.

Marit Arnstad, matriarch of the Center Party and a firm friend of the farmers, claimed that the Liberals were letting the farmers down. “This is all about promises we made in Parliament about narrowing the income gap between farmers and other groups in Norway,” Arnstad said.

Akjelstad responded that it’s the Center Party that was letting the farmers down with its latest proposal. “We have put a priority on small- and medium-sized farms,” he said, claiming the Center Party was guilty of the same “centralization” and emphasis on support for bigger farms favoured by the government, and that it has spoken out against all year.

Setback for the opposition
It also must be embarrassing for the Center and Labour parties that after criticizing the government for failing to satisfy the farmers, they can’t drum up enough support for farmers either. Negotiations were due to continue through the weekend amidst warnings from researchers that food production in Norway is already higher than ever and that giving in to the farmers’ lobbying organizations may actually worsen their income prospects.

“It’s understandable that politicians in Parliament who want to be re-elected vote for proposals that please their voters,” wrote Eirik Romstad of the agricultural university NMBU in Aas and Klaus Mittenzwei of  the Norwegian Institute for Bioeconomics (Nibio) in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week. “For society as a whole, it can have negative consequences if the Parliament follows the wishes of the farming organizations, especially regarding increased production as a solution for what many see as an income problem.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund