The subsidy scandal

Posted: 11 December 2003

Author: Charlie Pye-Smith
Earthscan, London, 2002, £17.99 (hb)

Among all the causes of environmental destruction and social dislocation, government subsidies must rank high. Global spending on subsidies to farming, road transport, and the energy and water industries alone, is costing tax payers over $700 billion a year, not far short of the global spend on arms.

But it is not a subject that is easy to grasp. Not all subsidies are bad, and not all are the result of political graft. Many are hidden from sight and others are technically complex.

That is why Charlie Pye-Smith's book is so valuable. It concentrates on one country, the United States, and is based on first-hand travel and investigation. It is balanced but hard hitting, and it is an entertaining read.

It is also highly topical. President Bush has signed a Farm Bill that will raise agricultural subsidies in that country by 80 per cent over ten years. As Pye-Smith says "this is a disaster for both the US taxpayer and for farmers elsewhere, whose produce will now have to compete with cheap exports that the bill will generate."

Of course, European nations are just as guilty of perpetuating the subsidy scandal as is the United States. But that country probably accounts for a fifth of all the world's perverse subsidies , and the system by which corporations and individuals buy political favours is 'transparently open'.

This revealing book tells the story through the people involved, whether they be fishermen, farmers, oilmen or loggers, as well as campaigners, community leaders, officials and politicians. It can be read for pleasure as travelogue, but more importantly for the light it shines on the social and environmental damage and the corruption which underpins so much of the subsidy business.

John Rowley