Edmunt Szot has written intelligently in his critique of ICPPC’s Charter 21 – Countryside Manifesto for 21st Century Poland. However, the remedial suggestions he proposes are very unlikely to achieve the results he expects.
Firstly I would like to point out that, contrary to Mr Szot’s allegation, ICPPC is concerned to protect the countryside in all countries of Europe and beyond. Its membership includes individuals from 12 countries working on similar campaigns. Some, such as Rumania, are adopting Charter 21 to suit their own political circumstances. Traditional family farms still exist in varying degrees in every country, but in Poland they represent a particularly strong part of the countryside tradition. This means that there is both more to gain and more to lose where Polish rural policy decisions are concerned.
Mr Szot’s main recommendation is the adaptation of a restructuring policy centring round a moderate increase in farm size and stocking density, with some attendant shift of labour into the urban sector – away from the smallest and ‘least efficient’ farms. He claims that this is the ‘basic condition for maintaining low food prices and a guarantee of a good income for farmers.’ Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely to happen in practice.
History has taught the UK and other European farmers a lesson which I hope Mr Szot and Poland will heed. Thirty years ago, we thought that a similar policy would help modernise UK agriculture and secure a viable future for our farmers. Instead, after joining the EU in 1973, we witnessed a temporary improvement in farm incomes (after heavy capital investment and significant subsidies), followed by a steady decline, in spite of an almost limitless increase in farm size, livestock numbers, pesticides and nitrate fertilizers, and growth-promoting antibiotics in animal feeds. We also witnessed an alarming increase in soil erosion and a dramatic fall in the general biodiversity of the countryside, as large scale, ‘efficient’ farm equipment took over from the lower-impact tools of the earlier phase. The spread of diseases such as Foot and Mouth can be directly linked to these modernisation policies, and who can doubt that there is worse to come?
Why did it go this way? There is one overriding reason: the liberalisation and globalisation of the world’s food economy. As the WTO and the EU free-market-oriented trade regulations become more dominant, so the ability of any one country to maintain secure tariff barriers against the import of cheap and often inferior agricultural commodities lessens, undermining the ability of the home country’s farmers to maintain economic viability.
The icons of this so-called ‘free market’ are the supermarkets. Once they are allowed to establish themselves in areas where smaller stores once prevailed, the ability of a country to maintain a sensible degree of self-sufficiency is rapidly undermined. Supermarkets are after big profits. They purchase the cheapest products on the world market and dress them up to look appealing. Using massive advertising budgets, they lure the public into their chains and away from local food outlets.
For all the apparent sense in developing a ‘moderate’ increase in farm efficiency and national self-sufficiency, in practice events have led to an unprecedented and catastrophic collapse in the fortunes of UK agricultural viability. Between 1970 and 2001, the average UK farm trebled in size from 15 ha to 50 ha (and 20% of UK farms are now over 200 ha), but nationally farm incomes now average just 24,000 (Polish money) per annum. In UK terms, this is below the national income poverty line.
I am determined that Polish policy makers recognise that this tragic situation will undoubtedly be repeated in Poland unless radical remedial action is taken. Once farmers are faced with the full force of global competition, they will attempt to increase the scale and technological efficiency of their enterprises at the expense of skilled labour and the overall care of livestock and land. By adopting this route, Poland will – in ten years time – have lost what is arguably its greatest asset: an artisanal peasantry capable of maintaining the magnificent ecological diversity of the Polish countryside and of living a life of self-sufficiency and teaching this almost forgotten skill to future generations.
We do not advocate poverty or backwardness; but is a family living off the land with only the minimum income better or worse off than one struggling to live in a three-roomed apartment on the twelfth floor of a Warsaw high-rise block, and buying its food from California?
The worldwide attempts to destroy the peasantry have been at the forefront of both state communism and corporate capitalism. Both are equally dismissive and intolerant of economically independent people. Both have caused a trail of social, environmental and economic destruction, in the wake of their heavy-handed, top-down agricultural policies. Yet, as a recent international report shows, the best agricultural results are now being achieved by small, independent, mixed farms, and the worst by large state and corporate monocultures.
If Poland can hold to its line and evolve a model of sustainable, small-scale farming, coupled to local distribution without undermining the independence of the majority of its landed people, it will have struck a bigger blow for social justice and planetary survival than anything yet to emerge from either the EU or the WTO.
Sir Julian Rose