This article is part of our special report Preserving biodiversity in Europe: Is sustainability the answer?.
The aim of agroecology, according to the declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology, is to find ways to recover the food system destroyed by industrial agriculture. But in Poland, it seems, there are too many obstacles to guarantee success.
In 1989, the average salary in Poland could purchase 68 kilos of sugar or 11 kg of ham. These days it could buy about two tonnes of sugar or 300 kg of ham. Consumers can buy a lot more, and they are spoiled for choice.
But experts warn that such a system may not be sustainable, and the coronavirus pandemic, with disrupted supply chains, has exposed the scale of the problem.
Closing borders increased pressure on farmers. In Poland, due to the pandemic, Ukrainian workers could not come for seasonal work in the fields.
However, despite serious concerns that customers would give a pass to more expensive organic products, due to the economic crisis wrought by the pandemic, this did not happen. Interest in organic farming actually increased.
“It is a pity that it took such a situation to raise interest in our work,” said farmer Monika Styczek-Kuryluk, who together with her husband Robert runs a 33-hectare ecological farm in Lubelskie Voivodeship.
“Several factors contributed to the greater interest of consumers: the initial disruption of global supply chains, the problem with the purchase of favourite products and finally, paying more attention to the purchase of healthy and safe products,” Styczek-Kuryluk told EURACTIV.pl.
She is the founder and president of the Small Big Change Foundation, which mainly deals with ecological education and supports the development of ecological farms in Poland. She is also a member of the Association of Food Producers with Ecological Methods EKOLAND.
The Styczek-Kuryluk farm does not use pesticides, processed fertilizers or fossil fuels, and there are more than 200,000 of such farms across the EU.
“Agroecology protects the soil better than conventional agriculture. With ecological methods, the soil rests longer thanks to the longer crop rotation,” Styczek-Kuryluk said. However, she asked “if these are nothing but benefits, why do most farmers still prefer conventional farming?”
Agroecology on the rise in EU
According to a report published by Eurostat in 2018, the European Union had 13.4 million hectares dedicated to organic farming, with the largest organic crops areas in Spain, Italy and France.
The total organic area in the EU increased by 70% in the last ten years and organic retail sales reached €34 billion in 2017, according to European Commission data.
Until recently, many in Poland looked at organic food as an exotic curiosity. Today, however, along with the increase in consumer awareness, it has started gaining traction.
While organic farming is characterised by a 20% lower efficiency than intensive agriculture, postdoctoral fellow Ewa Rembiałkowska from the Faculty of Human Nutrition of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences said that in the current market, farmers are able to produce enough organic food without the need to enlarge the existing crop areas.
Still, the uptake of organic in Poland has been slow but steady.
In 2016, less than 4% of new food and drink products introduced to the Polish market were labelled as “organic food”. In 2020, this increased to 20%.
At the same time, 46% of Polish consumers already consider natural ingredients to be the most important criterion when choosing food products. For them, it is even more important than, for example, low sugar (33%), fat or salt content, as shown by the results of research by Mintel and BNP Paribas.
People are paying more attention to the content of labels, composition and production methods, looking for simple, “wholesome” ingredients and food that is not “over-processed”.
Industrial farming, cheap imports hamper progress
But even so, taking into account the change in consumer behaviour, profitability of eco-farming in Poland cannot be taken for granted.
“It is not easy in Polish conditions,” said Monika Styczek-Kuryluk, explaining that retail chains in Poland prefer to import products from abroad than to purchase from domestic suppliers
“I encourage unbelievers to take a mini-test. Visit any store. Select a dozen products and check their labels. The vast majority – I can assure you – will provide information on a country of production other than Poland. Such a situation, the lack of interest in commercial networks, forces farmers to look for other non-standard outlets,” she said.
The commercial success of organic farmers is also determined by their efficiency in using new technologies for networking, marketing and even direct sales. The example of the coronavirus pandemic is a good illustration of this relationship.
“If a farmer does not maintain his own network of contacts, the platform through which he will be in contact with the customer may fail. The interest in organic products is still growing, but the market is small compared to conventional crops,” stressed Monika Styczek-Kuryluk.
There are also food cooperatives in Poland that allow farmers to reach customers directly, mostly those who live in the cities. Thus, the Styczek-Kuryluk family cooperates with several cooperatives from Warsaw, Krakow and Lublin.
However, the farmer said, “in Poland, there is still no idea of the proper management of people involved in agroecology. We are a minority and we are not at the centre of the authorities’ attention.”
There is also the feeling the EU may not be helping organic farmers enough. “Ten years ago, when I started my adventure with agriculture, I was very optimistic about all EU strategies and proposed changes. I saw them as an opportunity to change habits at the macro level, Styczek-Kuryluk said.
However, with the passage of time, she began to notice that each successive concept brought little change to an issue that is fundamental for farmers: selling products.
“Organic farming is still losing to large-scale mass-production companies that are farming extensively and are hostile to biodiversity and nature,” she said.
In her opinion, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has many well-known advantages, but also some downsides.
The advantages include opening borders to the flow of goods within the EU internal market; disbursing grants; creating a system of compensation for natural disasters; introducing mandatory labelling of food, improving the quality of plant production in organic farming and, finally, raising the standard of living of farmers.
Some of the key disadvantages for organic farmers include an overgrown bureaucracy; payment of subsidies per hectare, which does not properly support organic farms; a marked decline in biodiversity in agriculture; subsidizing industrial livestock farming or insufficient support for organic farming.
“Organic farmers need, above all, trust in their activities, and not forcing – as is often the case with certification bodies. A poor-quality product will be quickly verified by the market, and officials behind the desk are often convinced that they know better what our daily struggles look like,” Monika Styczek-Kuryluk said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]