Charlie Pye-Smith, The Subsidy Scandal: How Governments Squander Public Money and Destroy the Environment
London and Virginia
Earthscan Publications, 2002

ISBN 1853839027
Pages xvi and 154-5

During the early 1970s I worked on a mixed arable and dairy farm in the north of England, and as a farm student I was frequently entrusted with the least skilled and most dreary tasks: forking bales of hay, unloading wagons of fertilizer, shoveling cow muck, and the like. One of the less cerebral activities involved ripping out hedgerows, and during the course of a month I and a couple of others destroyed and burnt great lengths of hedgerow, which for two centuries or more had been home to a wide variety of plants, birds, and small animals. In doing so we turned half a dozen small, irregular fields into one large 100-acre field, thus gaining extra land on which to grow crops. From now on the business of plowing, sowing, and harvesting would also be much easier, and the farm more "efficient."

Much of this-like many other practices whose purpose was to make farming more efficient-was paid for by a government subsidy. Hedge removal subsidies no longer exist: over a short period of time they led to the rape of a beautiful landscape, to the loss of wildlife habitat, and-eventually-to a sense of outrage among the public. Nowadays farmers in some area are paid a subsidy to plant hedgerows instead, which means that today's taxpayers are obliged to make amends for the damage done by activities that were paid for by yesterday's taxpayers….

In the waters off Newfoundland it was the big draggers, working throughout the year and catching vast quantities of fish, which were primarily responsible for the collapse of the cod. As Tom Best said, the inshore fishermen could never in millions of years have done what the draggers did in a matter of a few decades. They simply don't have the technology to be so destructive, although the emerging Mid-shore fleet is proving highly efficient - efficient in the sense that large numbers of fish can be quickly caught with relatively little manpower. But is that the only sort of efficiency?

"You can't stop technological progress," Art May told me. "It's an inevitable law of nature." But what if the nations, or individuals, whose task it is to manage fish stocks, and to ensure that they provide a sustainable harvest in the future, fail to adequately control the latest generation of high-tech trawlers? This is precisely what has been happening in many parts of the world. Although there is no way of preventing net makers and boat-builders and sonar manufacturers from designing more efficient products, the time may come when we should insist that certain types of vessel must not be allowed to fish in certain waters. "To have the society we want," suggested David Schorr, "we may need to willfully embrace inefficient technologies. After all, what is wrong with that?" Nothing, though I might quibble with the use of the word inefficient. Is a fishery that provides a modest living for 10,000 people working froth small boats using hook and line less or more efficient than one of similar size that provides a living to 100 individuals using large trawlers with the most modern gadgetry? I would say it is more efficient: the same resource provides a living for a greater number of people. I am not suggesting that all fishing should be conducted from canoes. If that were the case, fish stocks far offshore, would remain unexploited. However, we do need to rethink our ideas about efficiency -and get rid of the perverse subsidies that encourage overfishing. If we don't, then there will be fewer and fewer fishermen making a living from the sea, and fewer and fewer fish.