Minister caught in real food fight

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The Norwegian government’s unpopular decision to further raise import tariffs on cheese and meat, to protect Norwegian producers, is setting off more political battles. It also prompted a leading Norwegian restaurant owner  to throw Norway’s government minister for agriculture and food out of the trendy new Mathallen (Food Hall) in Oslo.

Norway’s minister for agriculture and food, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, faces plenty of opposition over his support for protectionism. PHOTO: Landbruks- og mat departementet

The major opposition parties in Parliament have vowed to overturn the higher tariffs if they win government power next year. They also propose a major revamp of Norway’s protectionist agricultural policies, setting off immediate squeals of protest from farmers who feel threatened.

Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum of the Center Party, which forced through the controversial import tariffs to appease its farming constituency, claims he’s just trying to preserve food production in Norway. He nonetheless found himself distinctly unwelcome when he attended the official opening of the country’s new showcase for food last month.

While touring the highly popular Food Hall, located in a converted factory building, Vedum strolled into the restaurant and retail outlet operated by Jan Vardøen, who also runs several other successful culinary enterprises in the surrounding Grünerløkka district. Vardøen imports cheese, too, and firmly opposes the government’s decision to nearly quadruple tariffs that effectively will keep many types of imported cheese out of the Norwegian market.

Svein Flåtten of the Conservative Party has, along with the Progress Party, some very different ideas about how Norwegian agriculture can survive without more protectionism. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Newspaper Nationen reported that Vedum and Vardøen started arguing. The argument ended with Vardøen, who grew up in Ireland and England and clearly has different perspectives on competition and prices than many Norwegians, expelling the agricultural minister from his premises.

Vardøen confirmed to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Wednesday that he didn’t welcome Vedum’s visit, and that Nationen’s report that he threw out Vedum wasn’t far from the truth.

Vedum himself confirmed that he didn’t spend much time in Vardøen’s premises at Mathallen. “It was nice to meet him, but I quickly realized that he has a different view than I do regarding the question of whether we shall have Norwegian agriculture,” Vedum said.

Others argue that there must be different ways of preserving and promoting agriculture in Norway than simply imposing more means of shielding Norwegian farmers from competition. Both the Conservative Party and the Progress Party have proposed lowering, not raising, customs duties to enhance the selection of imported goods in Norway, while reducing the power of market regulators Tine for dairy products, Nortura for meat and poultry and Norske Felleskjøp for grain. The two leading opposition parties also want to restructure Norway’s current system of farm subsidies.

“We have too little meat, too little milk (as evidenced by last winter’s butter shortage) and too little chicken,” Harald Nesvik of the Progress Party told newspaper Aftenposten. “Something must be done.” He and Svein Flåtten of the Conservatives want to reward larger-scale farmers, promote more economy of scale within Norwegian agriculture and distance production interests from market regulation interests. They claim that having a dairy cooperative like Tine also regulate the market would be like letting a division of a commercial bank function as a central bank. Norway’s current system allows large market players to also regulate the market, notes Flåtten, “and that’s unfortunate for competition.”

Agriculture on the agenda
Vedum and the head of the farmers’ major lobbying group claim the non-socialist parties’ proposals would all but destroy Norwegian agriculture. Farmers in Norway operate with high costs, harsh weather, short growing seasons and very little arable land, they contend, and even the largest would neither be able to compete against much cheaper imports or be able to switch to niche products.

Vedum admits last year’s butter shortage was unfortunate, but he claims Tine is taking steps to prevent another one. He also rejects arguments that his means of supporting farmers are old-fashioned and he has little sympathy for Norwegian consumers, claiming they can both afford Norway’s high prices for food and be satisfied with what the Norwegian market can offer.

Vedum was in Brussels on Wednesday, facing EU officials unhappy with Norway’s protectionism, and on Thursday he planned to speak at an agricultural conference in Trondheim where all the market regulators and farm lobbyist were discussing, among other things, how to win more political support in next year’s election campaign. Among those offering advice to the farmers was Bjarne Håkon Hanssen, a former government minister for Labour who now works as a highly-paid consultant for public relations firm First House.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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