Agricultural Subsidies: Impacts, Challenges, and Reforms

Agricultural subsidies are a complex and controversial topic in global agriculture and trade policy. They are government payments or other forms of support provided to farmers and agricultural producers to supplement their income, manage risks, or influence production decisions. Subsidies can take many forms, such as direct payments, price supports, tax credits, or subsidized insurance, and they can vary widely in their design, implementation, and impacts across countries and commodities.

Proponents of agricultural subsidies argue that they are necessary to ensure food security, support rural livelihoods, and promote sustainable agriculture. They contend that farming is a risky and uncertain business, subject to various market failures and externalities, such as weather shocks, price volatility, and environmental degradation. Subsidies, they argue, can help farmers cope with these risks and uncertainties, and provide them with a stable and predictable income stream.

Critics of agricultural subsidies, on the other hand, argue that they distort markets, undermine competition, and create inefficiencies in the allocation of resources. They contend that subsidies can lead to overproduction, depress world prices, and hurt farmers in developing countries who cannot compete with subsidized products. Moreover, they argue that subsidies often benefit large and wealthy farmers more than small and resource-poor farmers, and can have negative environmental and social impacts, such as encouraging monoculture, excessive use of inputs, and land degradation.

The debate over agricultural subsidies has a long and complex history, dating back to the early 20th century when many developed countries began to support their agricultural sectors in response to the Great Depression and the Second World War. Since then, agricultural subsidies have evolved and expanded, becoming a major component of agricultural policy in many countries, and a key issue in international trade negotiations, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha Round.

Types and Trends of Agricultural Subsidies

Agricultural subsidies come in many different forms and designs, depending on the specific objectives, contexts, and political economy of each country. Some common types of agricultural subsidies include:

Direct Payments

Direct payments are government transfers of money to farmers based on their production, income, or other criteria. 

Direct payment can be further classified into several sub-types, such as:

  • Output subsidies: payments based on the quantity of output produced, such as per-unit or per-acre payments for specific crops or livestock products.
  • Input subsidies: payments based on the use of specific inputs, such as fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation water.
  • Income support: payments based on farmers' income levels, such as fixed or variable payments that are decoupled from production decisions.
  • Countercyclical payments: payments that vary inversely with market prices, providing farmers with a safety net when prices fall below a certain level.

Direct payments are one of the most common and visible forms of agricultural subsidies, and they have been used by many developed countries, such as the United States, the European Union, and Japan, to support their farmers. However, they have also been criticized for distorting production decisions, favoring large and wealthy farmers, and having negative environmental and social impacts.

Price Supports

Price supports are government interventions that aim to maintain or increase the prices of agricultural products above market levels. They can take several forms, such as:

  • Price floors: minimum prices set by the government, below which it agrees to purchase the product from farmers.
  • Price ceilings: maximum prices set by the government, above which it agrees to sell the product to consumers or processors.
  • Import tariffs: taxes on imported agricultural products that raise their prices and protect domestic producers from foreign competition.
  • Export subsidies: payments to exporters that allow them to sell their products at lower prices in foreign markets.

Price supports have been used by many countries to stabilize agricultural markets, protect farmers from price volatility, and ensure food security. However, they have also been criticized for distorting market signals, encouraging overproduction, and depressing world prices, which can hurt farmers in other countries.

Subsidized Insurance

Subsidized insurance is a type of government support that helps farmers manage production and market risks by providing them with subsidized premiums or other forms of assistance.

Some common types of subsidized insurance include:

  • Crop insurance: insurance that covers yield or revenue losses due to natural disasters, such as droughts, floods, or pests.
  • Livestock insurance: insurance that covers mortality or production losses due to diseases, accidents, or other events.
  • Price insurance: insurance that covers losses due to price declines or volatility, such as revenue protection or margin protection.

Subsidized insurance has become an increasingly popular form of agricultural support in recent years, as it is seen as a more market-oriented and less distorting way to manage risks than direct payments or price supports. However, it has also been criticized for encouraging moral hazard, favoring large and high-risk farmers, and having high fiscal costs.

Environmental and Conservation Programs

Environmental and conservation programs are government supports that aim to promote sustainable agriculture and protect natural resources, such as soil, water, and biodiversity. They can take several forms, such as:

  • Agri-environmental payments: payments to farmers for adopting environmentally friendly practices, such as reduced tillage, cover cropping, or integrated pest management.
  • Conservation easements: voluntary agreements between farmers and governments or NGOs to restrict development or certain land uses in exchange for payments or tax benefits.
  • Ecosystem services markets: market-based mechanisms that allow farmers to be compensated for providing ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, water quality, or habitat conservation.

Environmental and conservation programs have become more prominent in recent years, as countries seek to address the environmental externalities of agriculture and promote more sustainable and resilient food systems. However, they have also faced challenges, such as limited funding, complex implementation, and potential trade-offs with productivity and food security goals.

Trends and Patterns

The use and distribution of agricultural subsidies have varied widely across countries, regions, and periods. Some general trends and patterns include:

  • Developed countries have historically provided the bulk of agricultural subsidies, particularly in the form of direct payments and price support. For example, in 2019, the OECD countries provided over $230 billion in agricultural support, equivalent to 18% of gross farm receipts.
  • Developing countries have generally provided lower levels of agricultural subsidies, but have been increasing their support in recent years, particularly in the form of input subsidies and public investments in infrastructure and research. For example, in 2019, China provided over $185 billion in agricultural support, equivalent to 13% of gross farm receipts.
  • The distribution of subsidies has been highly skewed, with a small number of large and wealthy farmers receiving the majority of benefits. For example, in the United States, the top 10% of recipients received over 60% of commodity payments in 2019.
  • The composition of subsidies has been shifting over time, with a gradual move away from trade-distorting measures, such as price supports and export subsidies, towards more decoupled and non-trade-distorting measures, such as direct payments and environmental programs, in response to WTO rules and domestic policy reforms.
  • The overall level of agricultural subsidies has been declining as a share of agricultural value added but remains high in absolute terms and relative to other sectors. For example, in 2019, agricultural support accounted for 1.3% of global GDP, but 17% of agricultural value added.

These trends and patterns reflect the complex and evolving nature of agricultural subsidies, shaped by various economic, political, and social factors, such as market conditions, trade agreements, budget constraints, and public perceptions.

Impacts of Agricultural Subsidies

The impacts of agricultural subsidies are multifaceted and complex, affecting various stakeholders and dimensions of the food system, from farmers and consumers to the environment and trade. Some of the key impacts include:

Production and Trade Distortions

One of the main criticisms of agricultural subsidies is that they distort production and trade decisions, leading to inefficient and unsustainable outcomes. By providing artificial incentives or protections, subsidies can encourage farmers to produce more than they would under free market conditions, leading to overproduction, surpluses, and depressed prices. This can hurt farmers in other countries who cannot compete with subsidized products, and can also lead to environmental degradation, such as soil erosion, water depletion, and biodiversity loss, as farmers expand production to marginal or ecologically sensitive areas.

Moreover, subsidies can distort trade flows and undermine the principles of fair and open competition. By providing domestic support or export subsidies, countries can gain an unfair advantage in international markets, displacing or undercutting producers from other countries. This can lead to trade tensions, disputes, and retaliation, as well as foregone opportunities for economic growth and development in developing countries that rely on agricultural exports.

Several studies have quantified the production and trade distortions caused by agricultural subsidies. For example, a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimated that removing all agricultural subsidies and trade barriers could increase global welfare by $100 billion per year, with most of the gains accruing to developing countries. Another study by the OECD found that agricultural support policies in developed countries depressed world prices by an average of 10% for rice, 7% for wheat, and 4% for maize in 2019.

Distributional and Equity Impacts

Another important impact of agricultural subsidies is their distributional and equity implications, both within and between countries. As mentioned earlier, subsidies tend to be highly concentrated among a small number of large and wealthy farmers, who have the resources and political influence to capture the majority of benefits. This can exacerbate income inequality and social tensions in rural areas, as well as undermine the livelihoods of small and resource-poor farmers who may not have access to the same level of support.

Moreover, subsidies can have differential impacts on different types of farmers and regions, depending on their production systems, market orientation, and agroecological conditions. For example, subsidies that favor certain crops or technologies, such as maize, soybeans, or large-scale irrigation, may disadvantage farmers who grow other crops or use alternative practices, such as agroecology or rainfed agriculture. This can lead to a homogenization of agricultural landscapes and a loss of crop and genetic diversity, as well as a concentration of land and resources in the hands of a few large producers.

At the global level, agricultural subsidies can also have distributional impacts between countries, particularly between developed and developing countries. As mentioned earlier, subsidies in developed countries can depress world prices and hurt farmers in developing countries who depend on agricultural exports for their livelihoods. This can exacerbate poverty, food insecurity, and rural-urban migration in these countries, as well as undermine their capacity to invest in their agricultural sectors and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Several studies have highlighted the distributional and equity impacts of agricultural subsidies. For example, a study by the World Bank found that the majority of agricultural subsidies in developing countries accrue to the richest 20% of households, while the poorest 20% receive only 5-10% of benefits. Another study by Oxfam estimated that the CAP subsidies in the European Union benefit large landowners and agribusinesses more than small and medium-sized farmers, with the top 10% of recipients receiving over 50% of payments.

Environmental and Health Impacts

Agricultural subsidies can also have significant environmental and health impacts, both positive and negative, depending on their design and implementation. On the positive side, some subsidies, such as agri-environmental payments or conservation programs, can provide incentives for farmers to adopt more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, such as reduced tillage, cover cropping, or integrated pest management. These practices can help to improve soil health, water quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem services, as well as mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

However, many subsidies can also have negative environmental and health impacts, by encouraging unsustainable or polluting practices, such as monoculture, excessive use of inputs, or land degradation. For example, subsidies that promote the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can lead to water pollution, soil degradation, and biodiversity loss, as well as pose risks to human health through exposure to toxic residues. Similarly, subsidies that encourage the expansion of agricultural land into forests, wetlands, or other natural habitats can contribute to deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and carbon emissions.

Moreover, subsidies can also influence dietary patterns and health outcomes, by making certain foods more or less affordable and available. For example, subsidies that support the production of commodity crops, such as corn, soybeans, and wheat, can make processed and unhealthy foods, such as snacks, sweets, and soft drinks, relatively cheaper and more abundant, contributing to the rise of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases. On the other hand, subsidies that support the production of fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient-dense foods can make healthy diets more accessible and affordable, particularly for low-income and marginalized populations.

Several studies have documented the environmental and health impacts of agricultural subsidies. For example, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that the US commodity subsidies have contributed to the loss of millions of acres of grasslands, wetlands, and forests, as well as increased the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, with negative impacts on water quality, biodiversity, and soil health. Another study by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food estimated that the true cost of food, including the environmental and health externalities of agricultural subsidies, is two to three times higher than the market price.

Fiscal and Budgetary Impacts

Finally, agricultural subsidies can have significant fiscal and budgetary impacts, both for the governments that provide them and for the wider economy. In many countries, agricultural subsidies account for a substantial share of public expenditures, diverting resources away from other priorities, such as education, health, or infrastructure. For example, in 2019, agricultural support accounted for over $700 billion globally, equivalent to 0.8% of global GDP and 15% of total government expenditures.

Moreover, the fiscal costs of agricultural subsidies can be highly variable and unpredictable, depending on market conditions, weather events, and policy changes. For example, when commodity prices are low, the costs of price supports and countercyclical payments can increase sharply, putting pressure on government budgets and forcing cuts in other areas. Similarly, when natural disasters or other shocks occur, the costs of crop insurance and disaster assistance can also rise rapidly, straining public finances and crowding out other investments.

The fiscal and budgetary impacts of agricultural subsidies can also have broader economic implications, by affecting macroeconomic stability, trade balances, and exchange rates. For example, large and persistent subsidies can lead to overvalued exchange rates, making exports less competitive and imports more attractive, thereby worsening trade deficits and balance of payments problems. Moreover, subsidies can also distort the allocation of resources and investments in the wider economy, by artificially inflating the profitability and attractiveness of the agricultural sector relative to other sectors, such as manufacturing or services.

Several studies have highlighted the fiscal and budgetary impacts of agricultural subsidies. For example, a study by the OECD estimated that agricultural support accounted for over 40% of the total value of agricultural production in some countries, such as Japan, Korea, and Norway, in 2019. Another study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) found that reducing agricultural subsidies could free up significant fiscal resources for more productive investments, such as education, health, or infrastructure, with positive impacts on long-term growth and development.

Challenges and Opportunities for Reform

Given the significant and multifaceted impacts of agricultural subsidies, there is a growing recognition of the need for reform and modernization of these policies, both at the national and global levels. However, reforming agricultural subsidies is a complex and challenging task, involving various stakeholders, interests, and trade-offs. Some of the key challenges and opportunities for reform include:

Political Economy Challenges

One of the main challenges for reforming agricultural subsidies is the political economy of these policies, shaped by the interests and influence of various stakeholders, such as farmers, agribusinesses, politicians, and consumers. In many countries, agricultural subsidies are deeply entrenched and politically sensitive, with strong lobbies and constituencies that benefit from the status quo and resist change. For example, in the United States, commodity groups and farm organizations have been influential in shaping agricultural policies and maintaining subsidies, even as the number of farmers has declined and the structure of agriculture has changed.

Moreover, reforming subsidies can also be politically risky and unpopular, as it can lead to short-term losses and adjustments for some farmers and regions, even if it generates long-term gains for the wider economy and society. For example, removing price supports or trade barriers can expose farmers to greater market volatility and competition, leading to consolidation, displacement, and rural outmigration, with political and social consequences.

To overcome these political economy challenges, reforming agricultural subsidies requires building broad coalitions and alliances among different stakeholders, such as farmers, consumers, environmentalists, and public health advocates, who share a common interest in more sustainable, equitable, and resilient food systems. It also requires developing inclusive and participatory processes for dialogue, negotiation, and compromise, as well as providing adequate transition support and compensation for affected groups.

International Trade Challenges

Another challenge for reforming agricultural subsidies is the international trade context, shaped by the rules, agreements, and disputes of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other bilateral and regional trade agreements. Agricultural subsidies are a key issue in international trade negotiations, as they can distort global markets, undermine fair competition, and hurt farmers in developing countries. However, reforming subsidies is also a contentious and difficult process, given the divergent interests and capacities of different countries and regions.

For example, developed countries, such as the United States, the European Union, and Japan, have historically provided the bulk of agricultural subsidies, particularly in the form of trade-distorting measures, such as price support, export subsidies, and import barriers. These countries have faced pressure from developing countries and the WTO to reduce and reform their subsidies, but have also sought to maintain flexibility and protection for their own farmers and agricultural sectors.

On the other hand, developing countries, particularly those that are net agricultural exporters, have called for the elimination of trade-distorting subsidies in developed countries, as well as greater market access and special and differential treatment for their farmers and products. However, developing countries also face challenges in reforming their agricultural policies, given their limited fiscal resources, institutional capacities, and political pressures.

To address these international trade challenges, reforming agricultural subsidies requires strengthening and updating the multilateral trade rules and disciplines, as well as promoting more balanced and inclusive trade agreements that take into account the diverse needs and contexts of different countries and regions. It also requires enhancing the transparency, monitoring, and enforcement of subsidy notifications and commitments, as well as providing technical assistance and capacity building for developing countries to participate effectively in trade negotiations and dispute settlement.

Agro-Ecological and Technological Challenges

A third challenge for reforming agricultural subsidies is the agroecological and technological context, shaped by the complex and dynamic interactions between agriculture, environment, and innovation. Agricultural subsidies can have significant impacts on the sustainability and resilience of agricultural systems, as well as the adoption and diffusion of new technologies and practices. However, reforming subsidies to promote more sustainable and innovative agriculture is also a complex and uncertain process, given the diversity and variability of agroecological conditions and technological options.

For example, some subsidies, such as those that promote the use of synthetic inputs or monoculture cropping, can have negative impacts on soil health, water quality, and biodiversity, as well as increase the vulnerability of farmers to climate change and market shocks. On the other hand, other subsidies, such as those that support agri-environmental practices or research and development, can have positive impacts on the sustainability and productivity of agriculture, as well as foster the development and adoption of new technologies, such as precision agriculture, biotechnology, or digital solutions.

To address these agroecological and technological challenges, reforming agricultural subsidies requires a more holistic and integrated approach that considers the multiple dimensions and trade-offs of agricultural systems, as well as the potential synergies and co-benefits of different policies and practices. It also requires investing in research, innovation, and extension services that can generate and disseminate knowledge and solutions for more sustainable and resilient agriculture, as well as engaging and empowering farmers and other stakeholders in the co-design and co-implementation of these solutions.

Social and Equity Challenges

Finally, reforming agricultural subsidies also involves social and equity challenges, related to the distributional and inclusionary impacts of these policies on different groups and regions. As mentioned earlier, agricultural subsidies can have differential and unequal effects on different types of farmers, such as large vs. small, commercial vs. subsistence, or urban vs. rural, as well as on different segments of society, such as consumers, taxpayers, or the environment. Moreover, subsidies can also intersect with other forms of social and economic inequality, such as gender, race, ethnicity, or class, shaping the access, benefits, and costs of these policies.

For example, agricultural subsidies that favor large-scale, mechanized, and export-oriented agriculture can benefit mostly male, white, and wealthy farmers, while marginalizing female, indigenous, and resource-poor farmers who may rely on more diverse, localized, and agroecological practices. Similarly, subsidies that support the production of commodity crops, such as corn, soybeans, or wheat, can benefit mostly urban and middle-class consumers who consume more processed and animal-based foods, while disadvantaging rural and low-income consumers who may depend on more traditional and nutrient-dense foods.

To address these social and equity challenges, reforming agricultural subsidies requires a more inclusive and participatory approach that engages and empowers diverse stakeholders, particularly those who are marginalized or excluded from decision-making processes. It also requires adopting a rights-based and gender-sensitive perspective that recognizes and supports the multiple roles and contributions of women, indigenous peoples, and other groups in agriculture and food systems, as well as their specific needs and priorities.

Moreover, reforming subsidies also requires complementary policies and investments that can promote more equitable and inclusive rural development, such as land tenure security, credit and extension services, social protection, and infrastructure. These policies can help to create an enabling environment for more diverse and resilient agricultural systems, as well as to reduce poverty, hunger, and inequality in rural areas.


Agricultural subsidies are a complex and multifaceted issue that has significant impacts on the sustainability, equity, and resilience of agriculture and food systems. While these policies have played an important role in supporting farmers and ensuring food security in many countries, they have also generated unintended and negative consequences, such as distorting production and trade, exacerbating environmental degradation, and perpetuating social and economic inequalities.

Reforming agricultural subsidies is therefore a critical and urgent challenge that requires a holistic, inclusive, and evidence-based approach, taking into account the multiple dimensions and trade-offs of these policies, as well as the diverse interests and contexts of different stakeholders and regions. This approach should aim to promote more sustainable, equitable, and resilient agriculture and food systems, by aligning subsidies with broader development goals, such as poverty reduction, climate adaptation, and biodiversity conservation, as well as by empowering and engaging farmers and other stakeholders in the design and implementation of these policies.

Some of the key elements and principles of a reformed and modernized agricultural subsidy system could include:

  • Decoupling subsidies from production and trade-distorting measures, and moving towards more targeted and decoupled forms of support, such as income support, risk management, or agri-environmental payments.
  • Focusing subsidies on public goods and services, such as research and development, extension services, infrastructure, or ecosystem services, can generate positive externalities and co-benefits for the wider society and environment.
  • Prioritizing subsidies for small-scale, diverse, and agro-ecological farming systems, that can provide multiple benefits, such as food security, biodiversity conservation, and climate resilience, as well as support the livelihoods and rights of marginalized and vulnerable groups, such as women, indigenous peoples, and youth.
  • Ensuring transparency, accountability, and participation in the design, implementation, and monitoring of subsidies, by establishing clear criteria, targets, and indicators, as well as by engaging and consulting with diverse stakeholders, particularly those who are affected by or excluded from these policies.
  • Promoting policy coherence and integration, by aligning subsidies with other policies and investments, such as trade, environment, health, or social protection, as well as by fostering coordination and collaboration among different sectors, scales, and actors.

Reforming agricultural subsidies is a complex and long-term process that requires political will, social dialogue, and technical capacity. However, it is also an essential and urgent task that can generate significant benefits and opportunities for the sustainability, equity, and resilience of agriculture and food systems, as well as for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

As the world faces increasing challenges and uncertainties, such as population growth, climate change, and geopolitical tensions, reforming agricultural subsidies can be a key lever and catalyst for transforming and future-proofing our agriculture and food systems. By redirecting and repurposing these resources towards more sustainable, equitable, and resilient practices and technologies, we can not only support farmers and rural communities, but also contribute to the health, wealth, and well-being of the planet and its people.