Tag: Agricultural policy

An Overview of the Georgian Wine Sector

20221121 Georgian Wine Sector Image 02

Georgia has an 8000-year-old winemaking tradition, making the country the first known location of grape winemaking in the world. In this policy brief we analyze and discuss major characteristics of the wine sector in Georgia, government policies regarding the sector and major outcomes of such policies. The brief provides recommendations on how to ensure sustainable development of the sector in a competitive, dynamic environment.


The Georgian winemaking tradition is 8000 years old, making Georgia the world’s first known location of grape winemaking. There are many traditions associated with Georgian winemaking. One of them is ‘Rtveli’ – the grape harvest that usually starts in September and continues throughout the autumn season, accompanied with feasts and celebrations. According to data from the National Wine Agency, the annual production of grapes in Georgia is on average 223.6 thousand tones (for the last ten-years), with most grapes being processed into wine (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Grape Processing (2013-2021)

Source: National Wine Agency, 2022. Note: Some producers do not participate In Rtveli and the total annual quantity of processed grape in the country might therefore be higher than the numbers presented in the figure.

Wine is one of the top export commodities for Georgia. It constituted 21 percent of the total Georgian agricultural export value in 2021 (Geostat, 2022). Since 2012 wine exports have, on average, grown 21 percent in quantitative terms, and by 22 percent in value (Figure 2). The average price per ton varies from 3 thousand USD to 3.9 thousand USD (Figure 2). Exports of still wine in containers holding 2 liters or less constitute, on average, 96 percent of the total export value.

Figure 2. Georgian Wine Exports (2012-2021)

Source: Geostat, 2022.

The main destination market for exporting Georgian wine is the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries which account for, on average, 78 percent of the export value (2012-2021). The corresponding share for EU countries is 10 percent. As of 2021, the top export destinations are Russia (55 percent), Ukraine (11 percent), China (7 percent), Belarus (5 percent), Poland (6 percent), and Kazakhstan (4 percent).  While Russia is still a top market for Georgian wine, Russia’s share of Georgian wine exports declined after Russia imposed an embargo on Georgian wines in 2006. The embargo forced market diversification and even after the reopening of the Russian market and Georgian wine exports shifting back towards Russia, its share declined from 87 percent in 2005 to 55 percent in 2021.

While there are more than 400 indigenous grape varieties in Georgia, only a few grape varieties are well commercialized as most of the exported wines are made of Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Kisi, and Saperavi grape varieties (Granik, 2019).

Government Policy in the Wine Sector

The Government of Georgia (GoG) actively supports the wine sector through the National Wine Agency, established in 2012 under the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture (MEPA). The National Wine Agency implements Georgia’s viticulture support programs through: i) control of wine production quality and certification procedures; ii) promotion and spread of knowledge of Georgian wine; iii) promotion of export potential growth; iv) research and development of Georgian wine and wine culture; v) creation of a national registry of vineyards; and vi) promotion of organized vintage (Rtveli) conduction (National Wine Agency, 2022).

During 2014-2016, the GoG’s spending on the wine sector (including grape subsidies, promotion of Georgian wine, and awareness increasing campaigns) amounted to 63 million GEL, or 22.8 million USD (As of November 1, 2022, 1 USD = 2.76 GEL according to the National Bank of Georgia). Out of the spending, illustrated in Figure 3, around 40-50 percent was allocated to grape subsidies implemented under the activities of iv) (as mentioned above).

There are two types of subsidies used by the GoG– direct and indirect. Direct subsidies imply cash payments to producers per kilogram of grapes. As for indirect subsidies, they entail state owned companies purchase grapes from farmers.

Starting from 2017, the GoG decided to abandon the subsidiary scheme and decrease its spending on of the wine sector.  The corresponding figure reached a minimum of 9.2 million GEL (3.3 million USD) in 2018. Meanwhile, the grape production has been increasing, reaching its highest level in 2020 (317 thousand tons). In 2020, the GoG resumed subsidizing grape harvests to support the wine sector as part of the crisis plan aimed at tackling economic challenges following the Covid-19 pandemic. The corresponding spending in the wine sector increased from 16.7 million GEL (around 6 million USD) in 2019 to 113.4 million GEL (41 million USD) in 2020, out of which the largest share (91 percent) went to grape subsidies. In 2021, the GoG continued its extensive support to the wine sector and the corresponding spending increased by 44 percent, compared to 2020. The largest share again went to grape subsidies (90 percent).

Figure 3. Grape Production and Government Spending on the Wine Sector (2014-2021)

Source: Ministry of Finance of Georgia, National Statistics Office of Georgia, Author’s Calculations, 2022.

In 2022, the GoG have continued subsidizing the grape harvest to help farmers and wine producers sell their products. During Rtveli 2022, wine companies are receiving a subsidy if they purchase and process at least 100 tons of green Rkatsiteli or Kakhuri grape varieties grown in the Kakheti region, and if the company pays at least 0.90 GEL per kilogram for the fruit. If these two conditions are satisfied, 0.35 GEL is subsidized from a total of 0.9 GEL per kilogram of grapes purchased (ISET Policy Institute, 2022). Moreover, the GoG provides a subsidy of 4 GEL per kilogram for Alksandrouli and Mujuretuli grapes (unique grape varieties from the Khvanchkara “micro-zone” of the north-western Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti regions), if the buying company pays at least 7 GEL per kilogram for those varieties (Administration of the Government of Georgia, 2022). Overall, about 150 million GEL (54.2 million USD), has been allocated to grape subsidies in 2022.

Policy Recommendations

Although the National Wine Agency is supposed to implement support programs in various areas like quality control, market diversification, promotion and R&D, these areas lack funding, as most of the Agency’s funds are spent on subsidies. Given that the production and processing of grapes have increased over the years, subsidies have been playing a significant role in reviving the wine sector after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Mamardashvili et al., 2020).  However, since the sector is subsidized as of 2008, the grape market in Georgia is heavily distorted. Prices are formed, not on the bases of supply and demand but on subsidies, which help industries survive in critical moments, but overall prevent increases in quality and fair competition. They further lead to overproduction, inefficient distribution of state support and preferential treatment of industries (Desadze, Gelashvili, and Katsia, 2020). After years of subsidizing the sector, it is hard to remove the subsidy and face the social and political consequences of such action.

Nonetheless, in order to support the sustainable development of the sector, it is recommended to:

  1. Replace the direct state subsidy with a different type of support (if any), directed towards overcoming systemic challenges in the sector related to the research and development of indigenous grape varieties and their commercialization level.
  2. Further promote Georgian wine on international markets to diversify export destination markets and ensure low dependence on unstable markets like the Russian market. Although wine exporters have in recent years entered new markets, to further strengthen their positions at those markets, it is vital to:
    • ensure high quality production through producers’ adherence to food safety standards.
    • promote digitalization – e-certification for trade and distribution, block chain technology for easier traceability and contracting, e-labels providing extensive information about wine etc. – enabling producers to competitively operate in the dynamic environment (Tach, 2021)
    • identify niche markets (e.g. biodynamic wine) and support innovation within these sectors to ensure competitiveness of the wine sector in the long-term (Deisadze and Livny, 2016).


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Land Market and a Pre-emptive Right in Farmland Sales

20211025 Land Market Image 01

After more than 20 years of a land sales ban, Ukraine finally opened its farmland market on July 1st, 2021. A design of the land market contains a pre-emptive right to buy the land for the farmland tenants. In this study, we model the effect of this pre-emptive right. Following the approach of Walker (1999), we use a theoretical model with three players – landowner, potential buyer, and the tenant – to model outcomes of the land transactions with and without the pre-emptive right. To empirically estimate the effect of the pre-emptive right, we use farm-level data to derive farmers’ maximum willingness to pay and the minimum price that landowners are willing to accept. The introduction of the pre-emptive right decreases the land price and increases the tenant’s chances of winning as well as his surplus, at the cost of a potential buyer and the landowner. The introduction of the pre-emptive right also leads to inefficient distribution and deadweight losses to the economy.


After more than 20 years of a land sales ban, Ukraine finally opened its farmland market on July 1st, 2021. The moratorium on the sales of agricultural land in Ukraine covered of 96% of the country’s farmland market (or 66% of its entire territory).

The critical element of the newly opened Ukrainian farmland market design is the pre-emption right (right of the first refusal, RoFR) that is granted to the current tenant of land plots. By applying their pre-emptive right, tenants can purchase the land at the highest price the landowner could get on the market. On top of that, this right is transferable, meaning that the tenant could sell the right to the interested party. In this brief, we model the consequences of the pre-emptive right introduction in Ukraine.

Farmland Market in Ukraine

The moratorium on farmland sales that was in place for the last 20 years created a substantial distortion on the farmland market. It led to the situation where large companies predominantly cultivate the rented land, with the average share of leased land in the land bank for corporate farms in Ukraine approaching 99% (Graubner et al., 2021). Another noticeable trait of the farmland market in Ukraine is significant inequality in Ukrainian farms’ land banks. Based on the statistical forms 50AG, 29AG, and 2farm, our calculations show that the GINI index for the allocation of cultivated land across farms in Ukraine is 86%, indicating an extreme degree of inequality. As we can see from Table 1 – the top 10% of farms operate on 75% of all cultivated farmland in Ukraine.  On the other side of the spectrum, 49% of the smallest farms in Ukraine operate on only 2% of the cultivated farmland and rent only 0,3% of all rented farmland.

Table 1. Ukrainian farmland market structure 

Source – own calculations based on the statistical forms 50AG, 29AG, 2farm for the year 2016.

Therefore, in our analysis, we break a sample of Ukrainian farms into five categories with respect to their size.


To model the effect of the pre-emptive right, we will use the approach proposed by Walker (1999) using farm-level data. Thus, this study compares two scenarios – with the pre-emptive right (right of the first refusal, RoFR) and without the pre-emptive right in place. We assume that there are only three sides to each transaction – the seller (landowner), the prospective buyer, and the tenant, to whom the pre-emptive right is granted. Throughout this brief, we assume that there are no transaction costs involved.

Scenario 1. No Pre-emptive Right

In the no-RoFR scenario, the prospective buyer offers the landowner a price that the seller is willing to accept. The seller now has two options: either accept and get the offered price or reach the tenant and propose to outbid this offer. The option of reaching a tenant is more attractive since, in a worst-case scenario, if the tenant’s valuation – i.e., the maximum price the tenant is willing to pay for the land plot – is lower than the offered price, the tenant would simply not respond to this offer, and the landlord still gets the offered price.

On the other hand, if the tenant’s valuation is higher than the offered price, he has a strong incentive to make the counteroffer and start a bidding process. Both the tenant and the prospective buyer are incentivized to make a counteroffer up until the point where the offer’s value reaches their respective valuation. Thus, the smallest valuation between those of the tenant and prospective buyer would be the final transaction price.

Scenario 2. A Tenant Has the Pre-emptive Right

In this scenario, the tenant does not need to increase the price in his counteroffer if the third-party buyer’s offer is lower than the tenant’s valuation. The tenant could execute his pre-emptive right and buy the plot at the third-party buyer’s proposed price. Therefore, the outside buyer will change his approach to the initial offer. If the offer he makes is “too low”, he loses the chance of buying this plot since the tenant would exercise his pre-emptive right. If the offer is “too high,” he misses the profit he would make by making a lower offer.

In such circumstances, the transaction price will be given by the third-party buyer’s offer that maximizes his expected profit. The latter, in turn, depends on the probability of the tenant exercising his preemptive right, the third-party buyer’s own valuation, and the price he offers to the landlord. The probability of the tenant exercising the offer is the probability that the tenant’s valuation exceeds the offered price. It depends on the tenant’s farm size category and on the offer itself and can be calculated based on the distribution of valuations.

Empirical Approach

Our empirical analysis considers a (hypothetical) situation of a third-party buyer coming to the landowner, whose land is rented to another farmer, with the offer to buy a one-hectare plot. We assume that the offer exceeds the landowner’s minimum price that a landowner is willing to accept (WTA). The landowner’s WTA is proxied by the current rental price the landlord gets multiplied by the capitalization rate, set to 20 for all three sides of the transaction. The farmers’ valuations are estimated based on their net profit per hectare. We use the farm-level data to compute the average net profit per hectare needed for valuations estimation and the average rental price per hectare for the WTA estimation. This data was collected by the State Statistics Service of Ukraine through statistical questionnaires called 50AG, 29AG, and 2farm for the year 2016 and covers 39,297 farms. The descriptive statistics of the data are presented in table 2.

Table 2. Descriptive statistics

Source: own calculations based on the statistical forms 50AG, 29AG, 2farm for the year 2016.

We construct a set of potential buyers for each farm that operates on rented land based on the 10-km threshold distance between the tenant and third-party buyer. We end up with a sample of 764760 pairs of tenants and potential third-party buyers. We drop all pairs where third-party buyers cannot make an offer landlord is willing to accept. Therefore, only a sample of 291506 observations of tenant – prospective buyer pairs is used for the analysis. Importantly, for large and ultra-large farms, the share of observations that would attempt a transaction is 70% and 69% correspondingly. On the lower side of the size spectrum, this share is noticeably lower. For the group of small third-party buyers, the buyer would attempt the transaction only in 42% of cases. The most excluded from the farmland sales market category are ultra-small farms as they would only attempt the transaction in 25% of all cases.


Our findings suggest that the effect of the pre-emptive right on the land price is twofold. On the one hand, in 55% of cases – the RoFR price is higher than the (modelled auction) price in the absence of a preemptive right. However, the median price differences in these cases are just 0,7% of the auction price. At the same time, for the cases where the auction price is higher than the price with the RoFR, it exceeds the RoFR price, on average, by 83%, with a median value of 66%. As a result, if we compare the expected prices, the expected prices under the RoFR are significantly lower than the auction prices. There are also differences between different farm size categories of the third-party buyer – the larger the buyer is, the higher the transaction price would be regardless of the RoFR. In the scenario without the RoFR, the average transaction price for ultra-small farms would be $1259 per hectare. While for the ultra-large farm as the third-party buyer, the transaction price would be $1647. With the pre-emptive right granted to the tenant, the transaction prices would be $977 and $1313 correspondingly.

The pre-emptive right also increases the probability of the tenant acquiring the land. The most noticeable effect is for ultra-small and small farms – if an outside buyer attempts the transaction, their chances of purchasing the land increase from 12% to 28% and from 23% to 45%, respectively. The probability increase for the larger tenants persists, but percentage-wise it is smaller – their probability of purchasing the land due to the granted pre-emptive right increases from 42-45% to 65-66%.

The pre-emptive right also redistributes the surplus from the transaction. Measuring the surplus as the difference between the valuation and the buyer’s actual purchase price, we can conclude that the third party’s surplus decreased due to the RoFR introduction. The tenant’s surplus, on the other hand, increases. In the case of RoFR introduction, the percentage increase in the tenant’s surplus is larger for the ultra-small and small farmers, from 5% to 13% and from 10% to 23% of the tenant’s valuation, respectively. For larger farms, albeit the surplus’ increase is larger in absolute terms, percentage-wise, it is smaller than for their smaller counterparts. Their average surplus increased from 18-20% to 37-38% of the tenant’s valuation. For the third-party buyers, the percentage-wise decrease is more or less the same, regardless of their farm size. Their surpluses, on average, shrink by 23-27% depending on the size of the farm.

We also estimated the effect of the pre-emptive right on the joint surplus of the landlord and the tenant. The effect of the pre-emptive right on their joint surplus is positive regardless of the size category of the tenant. The largest increase of the joint surplus, percentage-wise, is observed for the small-sized farms as a tenant. In this case, the average joint surplus increased by 5%, translating into an $87 increase in the joint surplus. In absolute terms, the highest increase is for medium-sized farms as a tenant – $108 increase in the surplus or 4.5% of their original joint surplus.

The pre-emptive right also leads to inefficient allocations when the land is acquired by a lower valuation party, resulting in deadweight losses. Inefficient allocation is observed in 19% of all observations. The deadweight losses generated by the introduction of the ROFR are statistically significant (with the t-value equal to 195) and average 233 USD per hectare.


In this brief, we suggest a theoretical and analytical approach to calculate the impact of the pre-emptive right in farmland sales. Our analysis offers a range of important findings. First, small and medium-sized farms are almost entirely excluded from the farmland market. While more than two-thirds of the medium, large or ultra-large farms can afford to buy a nearby parcel, based on their profitability – for ultra-small farms, which have a land bank of under 50 hectares – this share is equal to just 25%. The introduction of the pre-emptive right granted to the current tenant may exaggerate this problem. The reason is that most of the rented land is already controlled by large and ultra-large companies. At the same time, the pre-emptive right increases the tenant’s probability of winning and its surplus at the expense of the landowner and outside buyer.

On the other hand, the pre-emptive right increases the joint surplus of the tenant and the landowner. Therefore, if the pre-emptive right would be a voluntaristic clause in the contract, rather than a right granted to all tenants by the government, it creates an incentive to include the pre-emptive right in the rental agreement with the price of this right negotiated between the landlord and the tenant.

Summing up, the pre-emptive right, as a policy instrument, has its costs. It leads to inefficient distribution and deadweight losses. In view of this, as much as the recent farm market reform in Ukraine is a clear step towards a market economy, the design of the land market should be taken with a grain of salt.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Food Security in Times of Pandemic in Georgia

An image of the wheat field with with grain harvester representing food security

The lockdowns and trade restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in shortages of some major food commodities on international and local markets. In this policy brief, we discuss and analyze Georgia’s response to the crisis in terms of food security and agricultural policy. Furthermore, we provide recommendations to ensure fewer disruptions in food supply chains and low volatility in food prices.


COVID-19 has posed significant risks to the food security of many countries including Georgia. Lockdowns and pandemic-related trade restrictions across the world have resulted in shortages of some major food commodities on international and local markets (e.g. sunflower oil shortage in Russia). As of October 16, 2020, according to a World Bank report, 62 jurisdictions have executed a total of 62 export controls in food commodities since the beginning of 2020 (Table 1).

Table 1. Total number of new export controls and import reforms in the food sector globally since January 2020, by month.

Source: World Bank Group, Global Alert Team, 2020

Most of the interventions have involved import reforms with the largest number of new regulations imposed in March-April.  On August 18, 2020, the Eurasian Economic Commission announced an EAEU import tariff quota on certain agricultural goods, valid for 2021. Turkey has also conducted a price stabilization policy by announcing purchasing prices for apricots, paddy, and dried raisin. On August 5, 2020, the government of Turkey introduced additional customs duties on certain agricultural products including chocolate, pasta, and some food preparations. It also eliminated import duties on wheat and barley in October.

Given that Georgia is a net importer of food, and in light of the trade restrictions imposed by its major trade partners, food security moved up on Georgia’s agricultural policy agenda. In order to weaken the adverse impact of the pandemic, keep food prices stable, and reduce input prices for farmers, the state designed the following set of measures:

  • 10M Georgian lari (GEL) from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture (MEPA) budget were allocated to subsidize imports of 9 food products: pasta, buckwheat, vegetable oil, sugar, wheat, wheat flour, milk powder, and beans (Legislative Herald of Georgia, 2020). The program subsidized importers’ additional costs resulting from exchange rate fluctuations and was implemented between March 15-May 15;
  • Additional 16M GEL were allocated for purchasing sugar (5,000 tons), vegetable oil (1,500 thousand liters), and pasta (500 tons) stocks from private companies;
  • An anti-crisis plan, “Caring for Farmers and Agriculture”, was presented by the state on March 12. The plan entailed two forms of aid: direct assistance to farmers and sectoral support. Some of the support measures included the distribution of so-called “agricultural cards”– subsidies for cattle-breeding and land cultivation services for smallholder farmers (registered farms with plots in the range of 0.25-10 ha); provision of cheap diesel fuel for farmers; nullification of costs of land reclamation services; provision of agricultural loans and insurance; grants for machinery, equipment, and cooperatives.

Results of Government Interventions

As of October 9, 2020, state support schemes had the following results:

  • Up to 165,000 farmers had been granted agricultural cards. The size of the subsidy exceeded 28.9M GEL;
  • Under the agro-diesel program (which subsidized fuel prices for agro-producers) 122,000 beneficiaries received discount cards on 32,000 tons of agro-diesel;
  • More than 17,000 policies had been issued and 18,000 hectares (around 2% of agricultural land) had been insured under the agro-insurance program. The value of the insured crop exceeded 160M GEL;
  • Across different regions of Georgia, 255 applications for modernization of the dairy sector were approved. In total, 12.4M GEL were spent on this program;
  • 2,215 agro-loans had been issued with a 6-month interest rate covered by the state. The total amount of loans exceeded 40M GEL, including the co-financing of interest rates, which exceeded 3.3M GEL.

While many farmers have benefited from state support programs, these programs were not directly focused on the main consequences of the pandemic. The major threats posed by the pandemic – disruptions in food supply chains leading to decreased sales of agricultural products and price volatility – were not sufficiently addressed by the state support programs. According to the Georgian Farmers’ Association (GFA), 55% of surveyed farmers and agricultural business representatives encountered complications with product realization due to pandemic-related restrictions. Most farmers depend on the HoReCa (hotels, restaurants, and cafés) and hospitality sector, and their products are largely procured for accommodation and food facilities. 60% of those surveyed claimed that they were simply unable to sell their products due to the closure of hotels, restaurants, and cafés.

Food Price Dynamics

During March-May 2020 – the first months of the pandemic – food prices in Georgia showed upward trends on both a month-on-month and year-on-year basis (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Month-on-month and year-on-year changes in food prices

Source: GeoStat, 2020

The main explanation is likely the depreciation of the GEL against the US dollar: during March-May 2020, the GEL depreciated against the USD by 15.8% from 2.71 to 3.14 compared to March-May 2019 (National Bank of Georgia, 2020). As Georgia is a net importer of food commodities, the depreciation of the GEL put upward pressure on food prices. To limit the GEL depreciation and its impact on food prices, the Government of Georgia subsidized additional costs of importers of major food commodities arising from exchange rate fluctuations. The price restraint mechanism involved negotiating with food importers to not increase prices of their commodities and setting the exchange rate of the GEL against the USD at 3, while the Government of Georgia subsidized the corresponding difference between the actual and fixed exchange rates. Despite minimizing the effects of GEL depreciation, food prices in Georgia experienced a significant increase during the observed period: disruptions in supply chains associated with the COVID-19 pandemic led to food shortages that further increased food prices.

In April, annual food price inflation marked its highest level at 16.1% during March-August 2020.  Since then, annual food price inflation has been decreasing as farming activities resumed after COVID-19-related restrictions were relaxed and seasonal (locally produced) agricultural products appeared on the market. Accordingly, food prices started to decrease on a monthly basis.

However, with very few exceptions, prices for major food commodities that were subsidized by the state during March-May increased for both month-over-month and year-on-year comparison (Table 2). On a monthly basis, the biggest price changes were observed for sugar; while on annual basis prices for buckwheat increased the most.

Table 2. Year-on-year changes in prices of major food commodities, March-September 2020

Source: GeoStat, 2020

While food prices could have increased even more in the absence of subsidies, it appears that the state measures did not fully reach their objectives and could not fully overshadow the adverse impact of the pandemic and GEL depreciation.


The pandemic has shown the need for increasing the level of food security in Georgia. Given the multidimensional nature of food security, a longer-term policy should consider not only an increase in domestic production of key food commodities but also a diversification of import markets to ensure low volatility in food supply and prices. As an immediate response to the pandemic, it is recommended to:

  • further subsidize farm inputs in order to reduce the current costs of production;
  • support farmers in selling their produce;
  • develop state programs that strengthen local producers;
  • focus on diversification of import markets for food commodities which constitute a high share of households’ consumption basket.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Tax Meat to Save the Baltic Sea

Portion of meat placed on a wooden pallet representing idea of tax meat to save the Baltic Sea

In a world of perfect markets, where prices are “right”, consumers’ choice should, with few exceptions, be limited only by their budget constraints. But in the case of agricultural products, the “right” prices are not in place. One reason is that producers in this sector do not bear the costs for the externalities they generate. Focusing on the case of the Baltic Sea, this brief provides some insights into why livestock producers are, by and large, exempted from environmental policies, and raises the question whether something should be done about it.

An Italian expression describes the attempt to juggle too many projects or attain too many goals at once, with the tacit implication that something is bound to fail. “Avere troppa carne al fuoco“: literally, to have too much meat on the grill. This, in a metaphorical but also quite literal sense, is the dominant impression left by some summer reading about the situation of the Baltic Sea.

The Baltic Sea is home to the world’s largest anthropogenic “dead zone”. The main culprit is the unsustainable livestock production in the region, generating externalities (i.e., costs that economic actors impose on others without paying a price for it) that short-circuit the functioning of the markets, creating a case for regulatory intervention. The concept of externalities is today most famously related to the issue of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, felt by many as the most pressing challenge mankind has to deal with at present. In recent years, a lot of brain power has been spent on this, but there is more to environmental degradation and climate change than just CO2 and rising temperatures. A very conspicuous example is literally under our eyes, in the water body that lies between our lands. What should we do about it?

A Layman Understanding of the Background

For at least three decades, eutrophication (i.e., nutrient accumulation) and hypoxia (i.e., oxygen depletion) in the Baltic Sea has triggered and boosted each other in a vicious cycle. The nutrients discharged in the water fertilize the ocean floor resulting in an excess algal bloom. This underwater forest consumes oxygen, thus altering the balance between chemical elements in the water, so that even more nutrients are released and the cycle continues (for further references, see [16, 19, 21]). Beyond the algae and the decreased transparency of the water, these deep changes in the sea environment start to make them noticed in fish stocks depletion, but can more generally become devastating to both the marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Moreover, according to researchers, these conditions are going to increase the sensitivity of the area to the global climatic changes expected in the near future. This is seriously threatening a large part of economic activities in the whole catchment of the sea, an area of 22,500,000 km2 over nine countries with 85 million inhabitants.

Since 1974, all sources of pollution around the sea have been subject to a single convention, the Helsinki Convention, signed by the then seven Baltic coastal states. The Helsinki Commission, or HELCOM, is the governing body of the Convention, whose present Contracting Parties are Denmark, Estonia, the European Community, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden. For over three decades, HELCOM has monitored the situation. Alarming reports have followed one upon the other, together with policy recommendations to the contracting parties.

As stated on its website, “the work of HELCOM has led to improvements in various fields, but further work is still needed [… and] the remaining challenges are more difficult than earlier obstacles”. Reductions in emissions achieved so far are low hanging fruits, concerning major point sources, such as larger cities’ sewage treatment plants and industrial wastewater outlets. Due to both technical and socio-economic obstacles, achieving further reductions will be a tougher task. This is because it is now time to address diffuse sources of nutrients such as run-off from over-fertilized agricultural lands. Nevertheless, according to numerous studies (among others, [19, 23]), a substantial reduction of the nutrient load discharged into the sea appears necessary in order to reduce further damage; all the more, so given that it takes many decades for the sea to recover. The question is hence whether more stringent policy instruments might be needed.

According to researchers at HELCOM, eutrophication of the Baltic Sea is due to the excess of nitrogen and phosphorus loads coming from land-based sources. About 75% of nitrogen and 52% of phosphorus come from agriculture and the livestock sector. In particular, the main reason for the sharp increase in nutrient loads during the last 50 years is the intensification and rationalization process. This was partly stimulated by the EU Common Agricultural Policy in its early phase, with a geographic separation between crop and animal production [6, 9, 10]. On the one hand, animal farms grew ever bigger, in the order of tens of thousands of animals for cattle, hundreds of thousands for swine and millions for chicken farms. These giant facilities produce way more manure than what could be absorbed by crop production in their vicinity. Cheap fodder to these extremely dense animal populations is produced on large scale crop fields elsewhere, too far away for transport of manure to be feasible and instead using high-yield chemical fertilizers. This way, the nutrient surplus is multiplied at both locations; it leaks through the ground or in the waterways from the big heaps of manure that cannot be properly stored or disposed of, and it leaks from the over-fertilized fields (shocking case studies are reported by HELCOM [11]).

However, a different type of agriculture exists in the area known as Ecological Recycling Agriculture (ERA). This is based on more traditional methods and means that farms have a lower animal density and use the manure as fertilizer in an integrated production of crop to be used for animal feed. In this way, ERA manages to better close the cycle of nutrients with very little dispersion to the environment. Scenarios simulations [12] show that, expanding the presence of ERA from the negligible shares it currently accounts for (between zero and a few percentage points, varying by sector and country) would contribute considerably to solving the problem. The nitrogen surplus discharged into the sea yearly could decrease by as much as 61% if all agricultural production in Poland and the Baltic states were converted to the standard of the best ERA facilities currently operating (the Swedish ones), without affecting the current volumes of crop and animal products. However, this is not likely to happen spontaneously, precisely because of the externalities discussed above. As long as the external costs are unaccounted for and ignored, scale economies push in the direction of concentration and intensification, which is the current development path of the sector.

A Difficult Question

Zooming out from the Baltic Sea and looking at the bigger picture, one starts to wonder why the agricultural sector is so seldom a part of environmental policy or even the debate. Recent research has raised awareness about the contribution of the agriculture and livestock sector to climate change [5, 8, 14, 17]. Beyond nitrogen and phosphorus, the expansion of livestock farming is behind the rising emissions of methane. It is the next most common greenhouse gas after CO2 and responsible for 19% of global warming from human activities. This is more than the share of all transportation in the world combined [18].

A new American Economic Review paper [13] provides a broad picture of the sources of air pollution in the American economy, for the first time computed separately by sector and industry, and with the purpose of incorporating externalities into national accounts. Crop production and livestock production stand out among the five industries with the largest gross external damage (GED), defined as the dollar value of emissions from sources within the industry. In fact, the agricultural sector has the highest GED to value added ratio.

However, greenhouse gases are not the only externality generated by livestock production. The animals’ living conditions under modern farming methods favor the emergence of infections and new diseases that reach much further than through direct consumption of related products, as the recent E. coli episode in Europe brought to attention. The generalized use of antibiotics in animal feed, legal and widespread in some countries [3], constitutes an even bigger health threat. This is because it has the potential of generating antibiotic-resistant mutations of bacteria against which we would be completely defenseless should they pass to humans.

Moreover, the public has from an animal-rights and ethics perspective become increasingly concerned about the animals’ living conditions. 77% of respondents to the Eurobarometer 2005 believe that the welfare-protection of farm animals in their country needs to be improved. 96% of American respondents to the Gallup 2003 survey say that animals deserve legal protection, and 76% say that animal welfare is more important than low meat prices. Additionally, a comparable share advocates passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farmed animals.

In rich countries, the increased share of meat in the diet, which has been stimulated by decreasing relative prices, constitutes according to some medical research a health hazard in itself. In developing countries, raising livestock is an inefficient and expensive converter of fossil fuels into calories for human consumption. In addition, fodder production often displaces other important land uses such as forests.

It is easy to rationalize the absence of these issues from the policy agenda. It is not just a matter of powerful lobbies. The ownership structure and size composition make the agricultural sector so heterogeneous that the challenges in regulating it can easily be imagined. Adding to this, is the special role of food in culture, the “local” products so often linked to national identity, the romantic idea of the land nourishing its people, and of course the strategic role of being food self-sufficient [7]. In the past, the latter was linked to wars and famines. Perhaps, even in our projections about the future, self-reliance in food production still plays an important role in the perspective of global climate changes and accordingly limited or modified trade flows. However, we cannot afford to grant this sector a special status and ignore all the social costs it generates. Can we learn anything from current research on how all these externalities should be addressed?

Policy Tools

In the terminology of Baumol and Oates’ classic book on environmental policy, instruments can be categorized as “command and control”. For example, explicit regulation of standards and technologies with associated prohibitions and sanctions; information provision, that then lets the power in the hands of the consumers; and price-based instruments, in the form of taxes, subsidies or trading schemes. These can be imposed on inputs or output, with different implications [4].

The relatively high-level standards of EU environmental legislation (legally stipulated maximum livestock density per hectare, requirements of minimum manure storage capacity, ban on winter manure spreading) is effectively enforced in some countries. In the newer members states, on the other hand, issues have been reported [15] in the form of incomplete translation of EU legislation into the national regulations and ineffective enforcing, significant examples of unlawful practices by foreign companies (e.g. Danish companies in Poland and Lithuania) and limited public access to environmental information. When it comes to non-EU members in the Baltic Sea area, these problems are scaled up, with very large animal farms, lack of many important environmental regulations (no limits on livestock density, capacity of manure storage or ammonia emissions from stored and utilized manure, too generous limits for amount of manure allowed, etc.) and an insufficient environmental information system.

Information undoubtedly plays an important role, but to rely on consumers’ pressure might not be sufficient to solve this type of issues. Consumers are not famously a very effective pressure group, because of organizational issues and the classic collective action problems. Direct regulation of activities is certainly necessary, especially when it comes to the most important rules of the game for producers. However, the heterogeneity of the sector creates a trade-off between environmental precision and transaction costs of implementation and control in practice. For example, the damage of nitrate leaching depends on the type of soil; the policy measure is precise when it restricts leaching losses on sites that have specific characteristics. However, the costs of enforcing measures only at these sites are high. Alternatively, curbing nitrate use in general has low transaction cost, but because it will also affect sites without problems of nitrate in the groundwater, it also has low precision. This may be considered unfair or illegitimate [24].

Another limit of this approach is the lack of flexibility: once a particular practice becomes forbidden, it is likely that some other behavior emerges from the creativity of the actors involved that was not foreseen by the norm but could potentially present the same problems as the forbidden one. This will happen as long as the private incentives of the actors are not aligned with the policy goal.

Often the best way to curb a particular activity that, as in this case, has a number of unwanted side effects, is not to ban it but to put a price on it. As in the case made for CO2, a market based approach could also in this area offer the advantage of being cost-effective and at the same time stimulate creative new solutions, e.g. new technologies for manure processing. Therefore, one immediate questions concerns why the agriculture sector is not included in the European emission trading scheme (ETS)?

The European Union launched already in 2005 its version of a cap and trade scheme, covering some 11,000 power stations and industrial plants in 30 countries. As from 2013, the scope of the European ETS will be extended to include more sectors such as aviation, but not agriculture or livestock. The main limitation of ETS is that it does not address spatial concentration problems. When emissions have an immediate effect on the local environment, permit trading does not guarantee the achievement of targets at each location. On the contrary, the possibility of trading emission permits combined with economies of scale might lead to the emergence of emission hotspots, sites with highly concentrated amounts of pollutants locally affecting the environment and the population. A proposed variation is a scheme for tradable concentration permits, either for manure [20] or for animal production [2]. A concentration permit is defined as the permission to deposit a quantity of pollutants at a specific location. The permits can then enter a trading system, but the use of the right remains linked to the site. Some authors believe that in practice, such systems generate high transaction costs and cannot achieve cost-effectiveness.

An input tax, for example on chemical fertilizers or imported fodder, or a direct tax on emissions would only affect the balance between domestic production and imports from countries that do not have the same regulation. Moreover, as discussed above, emissions are far from being the only problem. An alternative, as argued by Wirsenius, Hedenus and Mohlin at the Chalmers University of Technology and University of Gothenburg [22] is an output tax, i.e. a tax on meat consumption, on the grounds that costs of monitoring emissions are high, there are limited options for reducing emissions apart from output reduction, and the possibility for output substitution in the consumption basket are substantial. Moreover, a tax on consumption would avoid international competition from products that are not produced with the same standards.

A meat tax has shortly appeared in the public debate, for example in the Netherlands and in Sweden, but it has failed to gain much popularity so far. Meat consumption in the area has increased considerably in recent years –between 30% in Germany and 160% in Denmark since 1960 – and relative prices have fallen. By a combination of price and income effects, it has become a norm to eat meat every day, or even at every meal. It must be recognized, though, that while each single policy instrument discussed above has its shortcomings, because of the many interrelated aspects of the problem, a reduction in output, perhaps through a consumption tax, would address in a more comprehensive way all the different externalities related to meat production. After all, maybe there is just too much meat on our grills.

Recommended Further Readings

  • [1] ”Slaktkropparnas kvalitet i ekologisk uppfödning”. Technical report, Ekokött, 2006.
  • [2] J. Alkan-Olsson. Sustainable Water Management: Organization, Participation, Influence, Economy., volume 5, chapter Alternative economic instruments of control. VASTRA, Gothenburg University, 2004.
  • [3] Mary D. Barton. “Antibiotic use in animal feed and its impact on human health”. Nutrition Research Reviews, 13:279–299, 2000.
  • [4] W.J. Baumol and W.E. Oates. The theory of environmental policy. Cambridge Univ Pr, 1988.
  • [5] J. Bellarby, B. Foereid, and A. Hastings. Cool Farming: Climate impacts of agriculture and mitigation potential. Greenpeace International, 2008.
  • [6] M. Brandt and H. Ejhed. Trk transport-retention-källfördelning. Belastning på havet. Naturvårdsverket Rapport, 5247, 2002.
  • [7] F. Braudel, S. Reynolds, and S. Reynolds. The structures of everyday life: The limits of the possible. Harper & Row, Publ., 1981.
  • [8] A. Golub, B. Henderson, and T. Hertel. Ghg mitigation policies in livestock sectors: Competitiveness, emission leakage and food security. In Agricultural and Applied Economics Association 2011 Annual Meeting, July 24-26, 2011, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, 2011.
  • [9] A. Granstedt. Increasing the efficiency of plant nutrient recycling within the agricultural system as a way of reducing the load to the environment–experience from Sweden and Finland. Agriculture, ecosystems & environment, 80(1-2):169–185, 2000.
  • [10] A. Granstedt and M. Larsson. “Sustainable governance of the agriculture and the Baltic Sea – agricultural reforms”, food production and curbed eutrophication. Ecological Economics, 69:1943–1951, 2010.
  • [11] HELCOM. “Balthazar project 2009-2010: Reducing nutrient loading from large scale animal farming in Russia”. Technical report, 2010.
  • [12] M. Larsson and A. Granstedt. “Sustainable governance of the agriculture and the Baltic Sea–agricultural reforms, food production and curbed eutrophication”. Ecological Economics, 69(10):1943–1951, 2010.
  • [13] Nicholas Z. Muller, Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus. “Environmental accounting for pollution in the United States economy”. American Economic Review, 101:1649–1675, 2011.
  • [14] T. Nauclér and P.A. Enkvist. “Pathways to a low-carbon economy: Version 2 of the global greenhouse gas abatement cost curve”. McKinsey & Company, pages 26–31, 2009.
  • [15] J. Skorupski. “Report on industrial swine and cattle farming in the Baltic Sea catchment area”. Technical report, Coalition Clean Baltic, 2006.
  • [16] B. Smith, A. Aasa, R. Ahas, T. Blenckner, T.V. Callaghan, J. Chazal, C. Humborg, A.M. Jönsson, S. Kellomäki, A. Kull, et al. “Climate-related change in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems”. Assessment of Climate Change for the Baltic Sea Basin, pages 221–308, 2008.
  • [17] P. Smith, D. Martino, Z. Cai, D. Gwary, H. Janzen, P. Kumar, B. McCarl, S. Ogle, F. OMara, C. Rice, et al. “Greenhouse gas mitigation in agriculture”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 363(1492):789–813, 2008.
  • [18] H. Steinfeld, P. Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, M. Rosales, and C. de Haan. “Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options”. 2006.
  • [19] E. Vahtera, D.J. Conley, B.G. Gustafsson, H. Kuosa, H. Pitkänen, O.P. Savchuk, T. Tamminen, M. Viitasalo, M. Voss, N. Wasmund, et al. “Internal ecosystem feedbacks enhance nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria blooms and complicate management in the Baltic Sea”. AMBIO: A journal of the Human Environment, 36(2):186–194, 2007.
  • [20] B. Van der Straeten, J. Buysse, S. Nolte, L. Lauwers, D. Claeys, and G. Van Huylenbroeck. “Markets of concentration permits: The case of manure policy”. Ecological Economics, 2011.
  • [21] H. von Storch and A. Omstedt. “The BALTEX Assessment of Climate Change for the Baltic Sea basin, chapter Introduction and summary”. Berlin, Germany: Springer., 2008.
  • [22] S. Wirsenius, F. Hedenus, and K. Mohlin. “Greenhouse gas taxes on animal food products: rationale, tax scheme and climate mitigation effects”. Climatic Change, pages 1–26, 2010.
  • [23] F. Wulff, O.P. Savchuk, A. Sokolov, C. Humborg, and C.M. Mörth. “Management options and effects on a marine ecosystem: assessing the future of the Baltic”. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36(2):243–249, 2007.
  • [24] O. Oenema. “Governmental policies and measures regulating nitrogen and phosphorus from animal manure in European agriculture”. Journal of Animal Science, 2004.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.