A dangerous crossroads
points a way ahead for Polish agriculture,
hitherto unaffected by the intensification
of the rest of Europe
Polish agriculture is unique in Europe. Unlike both the huge farms of Western Europe and the collective ones elsewhere in the Eastern block, it has not undergone mechanization and the massive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Despite ideological and economic pressures, collectivization did not take root in Poland. In 1989, about 70 per cent of its arable land was still in some 2.5 million holdings, averaging only 7 hectares and employing over a quarter of the country's workforce. Yields are 30 to 50 per cent lower than in advanced European countries, while 20 to 30 per cent of the crop is lost through primitive storage.
Such anachronistic and inefficient agriculture has no chance of surviving in a market economy open to domestic and foreign competition. But it enjoys much greater symbiosis with nature than the enormous, ecologically damaging, farms of both Eastern and Western Europe. It uses two to three times less chemical fertilizer and five to ten times less pesticides and herbicides.
Nearly a million horses are still employed for haulage - a power source that uses only biomass for fuel, produces manure, and draws light machinery which maintains the soil's structure and physical properties. Coppices and uncultivated strips between fields enrich it further. Meadows and pastures have several times as many kinds of plants as in Western Europe. Despite recent drainage, Poland still has some of Europe's largest bogs: streams run between fields and many small ponds remain.
This produces high-quality food, full of flavour. At least two-thirds of Polish produce is estimated to fulfil the strict 'health food' criteria of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization. But as Poland is now trying to gain entry to the European Union (EU), it will have to carry out deep changes to adapt its agriculture to EU regulations. How can its positive aspects and low costs be maintained whilst increasing efficiency?
Uncritical acceptance of the intensive agriculture of most EU states would rapidly reduce the number of smallholdings and increase the area under mechanical cultivation. This would double Poland's unemployment to about 30 per cent, making it the country's most serious social problem. It would also have fatal effects on nature. The use of chemicals would increase several-fold. Heavy machinery would damage soil structure. The disappearance of coppices, uncultivated strips and partly wild meadows and pastures - and their replacement with monocultures - would dramatically reduce biodiversity. And there would be a significant increase in pollution.
Pursuing higher yields would reduce the quality, flavour and nutritional value of food and cause overproduction. It would be difficult to sell the excess at home; impossible to export it to EU countries. Prices would have to be low, on the verge of profitability, despite using increasingly ecologically harmful methods. So developing Polish agriculture on Western European lines would cause serious environmental, social and economic problems - and lead to a dead end - contradicting sustainable development.
The best model for future Polish agriculture would be organic farming, especially 'integrated agriculture', maintaining most of the advantages of traditional diversified systems while eliminating their defects. It would be based on average sized family farms, practising both cultivation and animal husbandry. Organic fertilizers and biological crop protection methods would be used wherever possible. Deep ploughing, which contributes to soil erosion, would be avoided. Organic methods can achieve yields only 10 to 20 per cent lower than intensive farming methods, while using significantly fewer resources, making it effectively more productive. This would require:
- better understanding of the natural environment and of agricultural technology by farmers, through educational training and agricultural advisory services;
- modern methods of storage and processing;
- a nation-wide network of laboratories to test products and foodstuffs and provide quality certification;
- generally available high-quality crop varieties and animal breeding stock;
- a tax on using artificial fertilizers and pesticides;
- tax relief for proven organic farmers.
Demand from increasingly prosperous - and ecologically aware - Europeans for healthy, ecologically safe, nutritious and tasty food will rapidly increase. By specializing in producing it, Poland could initiate an important experiment for the whole continent.
Professor Maciej Nowicki, former Minister of Environmental Protection, Natural Resources and Forestry, in Poland, is President of the EcoFund Foundation.