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Queen Elizabeth II doesn't exactly fit the American Gothic image, and it's difficult to picture her milking a cow, but it turns out that the queen of England qualifies as a farmer. In today's world, that means she receives farm subsidies from taxpayers, regardless of the fact that she has a net worth that runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Using an overseas version of the Freedom of Information Act, the Guardian newspaper earlier this year found that the queen and her son, Prince Charles, received more than $1.7 million in farm subsidies from the European Union over the past two years for farming done on their estates.
A spokesman for the queen defended the payments as business as usual: "The queen is a landowner and a farmer. She receives subsidy, just as any other farmer would do."
Overall, the Guardian found that 17 individuals and companies received more than $1.7 million each last year. The biggest individual winner: Sir Richard Sutton, who owns estates in Berkshire and Lincolnshire and who received $3.9 million over the last two years. Among corporations, Tate and Lyle received $413 million over two years in export subsidies for sugar, and Nestle UK raked in more than $37 million from European taxpayers during the same period.
The wealthy British aren't alone on the EU farm dole. The Times of London obtained figures from the European Commission showing that senators in France, cabinet members in Denmark and the Netherlands, and the husband of EU Farm Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel all receive thousands of dollars worth of farm subsidies each year. Prince Albert of Monaco receives about $360,000 per year for his lands in France. In 2003, according to the Times, the wealthiest 1.6 percent of European farmers received 27 percent of EU farm subsidies while the poorest 54 percent received only 4 percent of the subsidies.
The controversy over these payments reemerged last week as trade negotiations in Hong Kong stalled over the issue of farm subsidies. The United States and a group of developing nations led by Brazil and India are calling for European negotiators to set a firm date for ending farm subsidies that effectively lock poor farmers around the globe out of profitable markets.
European negotiators are balking. French Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau told the French newspaper Parisien/Aujourd'hui en France that Europe's Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) is non-negotiable. The EU policy, he said, is "simple: the CAP, the whole CAP and nothing but the CAP." Reforms should not even be considered in trade negotiations, he said: "That is the red line which must not be crossed."
But U.S. hands are hardly clean, either. Most U.S. farm subsidies also go to a small percentage of farmers who earn more than $250,000 a year (see "Cotton fleece," March 12, 2005), and subsidies have famously benefited multimillionaires like David Rockefeller, media mogul Ted Turner, and former NBA star Scottie Pippen. Wealthy U.S. sugar growers nearly derailed a trade agreement with Central American nations earlier this year, and the Senate Agriculture Committee undercut U.S. negotiators in Hong Kong earlier this month by endorsing a plan to extend U.S. subsidies until 2011.
In all Western countries, farm subsidies survive through a classic example of political bait and switch. The subsidies are sold to voters as a way to help struggling family farmers, the romantic rural yeomen of the popular imagination. But then when Congress or parliaments enact the subsidies, the lion's share goes to wealthy landholders and corporate interests.
The great irony: It's the real struggling family farmers of the world-those in developing nations-who suffer the most from taxpayer subsidies to queens, media tycoons, and wealthy politicians.