Exactly 18 years ago, i.e. in May 2004, Poland joined the European Union. This moment also became a turning point for its agriculture, which has always been among the key sectors of Poland’s economy. While accession provided a huge impulse for growth, we gradually started to define modernity in a completely different way than in those days.
“EU funds have helped to modernise Poland’s agriculture. It saw a technological leap, covering both agricultural production and food processing” - says Jakub Olipra, Senior Economist at Credit Agricole.
Moreover, he stresses that since Poland experienced technological transformation much later than Western Europe, solutions applied in the Polish agri-food sector are relatively modern in comparison to the West. “We are dealing here with a kind of premium arising from our previous backwardness” - he adds.
This opinion is echoed by Mariusz Dziwulski, Analyst at PKO BP. “Poland’s EU accession was certainly a breakthrough moment for its agriculture. It looks very different today than before 2004. The stereotypical image of a backward Polish farmer is long forgotten. Today, many Polish farmers do not differ from their Western counterparts” - he argues. Dziwulski adds that farmers are industrious people who manage their farms like businesses. They are increasingly well-educated, with expert knowledge. This helps them to increase efficiency on their farms.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Henryk Kowalczyk
expressed a similar opinion. “For many years, Polish agriculture was ridiculed and viewed as backward, almost primitive. It was contrasted with the agriculture in Western Europe, which, according to authoritative figures at the time, was modern and highly efficient” - he says.
However, in his opinion, there is no doubt that Polish agriculture today is surprisingly modern and serves as a benchmark for others.
Why is that? Kowalczyk argues that Poland has used far fewer fertilisers and plant protection products over many decades. “Our farms, especially family farms, which are the most popular type, practised sustainable agriculture. What does that mean? They maintained a balance between plant production and animal production” - he says.
As Dziwulski observes, the agricultural sector in Poland is undergoing consolidation and the average farming area has been increasing. Although Polish Central Statistical Office data indicate that Poland has approx. 1.32 million farms, a large proportion of arable land is leased in practice. “Of course, in comparison with the West, we still have relatively many farms with an inferior machinery fleet. However, large, modern Polish farms are in no way inferior to their counterparts from Germany, France, or Italy” - the expert believes.
In his opinion, lower labour costs continue to be a competitive advantage of Polish agriculture. “Thanks to this factor, our agricultural products represent good value for money. For instance, in the production of apples or poultry, we have become a leading supplier in the EU. Milk processing in Poland, performed mostly in cooperatives, is also among the most modern in the EU” - he says.
Olipra expresses a similar view. When asked about the hallmark of Poland’s agriculture, he replies: “Good value for money. This has been its success factor in recent years.” According to Olipra, top Polish export products include poultry, beef, mushrooms, apples, raspberries, and blueberries.
Deputy Prime Minister Kowalczyk also cites data on trade in agri-food products. “The value of these exports approaches EUR 40 billion. Polish food is already recognised and highly appreciated around the world. It is valued for taste and quality, which it owes to many centuries of tradition in the production of excellent processed meats and cheeses. The modern processing industry is also recognised, especially in the dairy and meat sectors” - he adds.
He observes that “this, combined with excellent quality raw materials, guarantees success, and today Polish agriculture is considered modern and can serve as a benchmark for others.”
What are the short-term challenges for the sector? “Due to the war in Ukraine, livestock production, such as pigs, poultry, or cattle, could face higher feed prices. This is coupled with high prices of means of production, including fertilisers, as well as weather risks caused by climate change” - the PKO BP expert replies.
How can this be addressed? According to Dziwulski, Poland should certainly strive to maintain, or even increase, the efficiency of its agriculture due to threats to global food security. “This entails the need to invest in modern technologies or irrigation systems, which will help our farmers to carry on in case of drought” - he says. Olipra also believes it is a good idea to invest primarily in production methods, which enable high efficiency while limiting the negative environmental impact of agriculture.
“These investments will be crucial from the perspective of the challenges we face in connection with the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy implemented by the EU. They will determine the competitiveness of Polish agriculture in the coming years” - he concludes.
This view is confirmed by Marcin Hermanowicz, who runs a fruit farm in Ignacowo, near Grójec in Mazovia (central Poland). In his opinion, the EU Green Deal will be a challenge. However, he believes that although many farmers are very much afraid of it, the Green Deal might provide an opportunity for medium-sized farms such as his own. “However, farmers would need to acquire new knowledge and purchase new machinery, and EU funds are needed for that because, contrary to intuition, modern organic farming is not about returning to old, inefficient production methods, but simply about more sustainable technology, somewhat similar to green energy production” - he explains.
He stresses that it is also important to make sure that products made in line with the European Green Deal do not have to compete with those produced in a standard way in non-EU countries. “This would be an end to European agriculture and the influx of such products will have to be limited at the Community level” - he argues.
What are some other challenges that Hermanowicz sees? He mentions political ones. He mainly grows the ‘Gala’ apple variety, intended for export. For many years, his apples were mainly exported to England, but due to Brexit, he had to find new markets. An additional challenge for fruit growers in Poland, says Hermanowicz, is that they have been cut off from the Russian market since the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Until then, the Russian market had consumed up to a third of Polish apple production. “At the moment, we mainly export products to overseas countries such as Saudi Arabia, India, or Jordan” - he adds.
Hermanowicz says that fruit sent to such distant countries must meet specific quality standards, primarily to survive six weeks of sea transport. In order to meet this requirement, his farm applies a number of agrotechnical solutions which boost the durability of fruit: from specialised fertilisation and precise methods to set the harvest date, to cold storage with a controlled climate.
The fruit grower explains that this requires constant learning and considerable investment. In recent years, his farm has benefited from EU subsidies from the Farm Modernisation programme. “It is necessary to continue modernising efforts, and this is hard to imagine without EU funding” - he admits.
“Today, Europe wants to fight climate change. However, agriculture is not the main culprit when it comes to this change. Of course, it is not totally innocent, but the type of farm we have in Poland is environmentally-friendly” argues Deputy Prime Minister Kowalczyk.
“Soil degradation has been triggered by the maximisation of profit in farms through monoculture and ‘animal factories’” - he points out and adds, “Extreme environmental activists are trying to ban animal production. This is wrong. First and foremost, we should take care of animal welfare. In Poland, we have used special subsidies for years to improve animal welfare beyond the applicable standards.”
Rural sociologist Ruta Śpiewak, PhD, from the Institute of Rural and Agricultural Development, Polish Academy of Sciences, also mentions the problem of agricultural behemoths. In her view, Poland has two parallel types of agriculture: on the one hand, small farms producing mainly for their own sustenance, and, on the other hand, large industrial businesses which engage in intensive agricultural production.
When asked whether the large ones are modern, she replies, “It depends on how we define modern. From an environmental and climate point of view, a considerable proportion of large farms are simply harmful.”
In her opinion, such farms produce food of increasingly poor quality, harm the environment, and poison the soil and water, thus contributing to climate disaster. “For example, gigantic poultry and pig farms are being run in Poland, among others by the Danes, who then sell the meat as Danish. We have also seen, for example, an enormous shrinkage in the population of insects and bees as a side effect of the operation of such agricultural giants” - she points out. Ruta Śpiewak believes that modern farming is represented by organic farms or those engaging in so-called regenerative agriculture: their output does not harm the environment and leaves a negative carbon footprint. However, Poland still has very few such farms, even compared to the rest of the European Union.
How well are these challenges identified by the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy? “The diagnosis is correct, but I believe the proposed solutions are insufficient” - replies Ruta Śpiewak.
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