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Is there a chance for a green transformation of Polish agriculture?

In the shadow of transition

Agriculture is the sector of the economy that first started to face the negative consequences of climate change. Droughts, extreme weather events and changes in the growing season are not only leading to higher food prices but are also causing increasing concern among farmers, further increasing the unpredictability and instability of their working conditions. According to analyses by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the worsening climate crisis will be one of the key threats to food security in the future. At the same time, at least in Poland, the agri-food sector is still on the margins of discussions on the low-carbon transition. As consumers, we also know little about agriculture and food production and the work of farmers is undervalued.

Food, agriculture and climate

Are farmers aware of the consequences of the climate crisis and the causes of what is happening in nature?

According to a survey of farmers conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in 2023, although they are aware of the negative changes taking place in nature, only a minority of them link them directly to climate change. There is also a lack of awareness of the impact of agriculture on the climate and the environment: only 27 per cent of the farmers surveyed indicated that agriculture could have a negative impact on the climate and even fewer (20 per cent) declared the negative impact of agriculture on the environment – water quality, soil fertility or biodiversity. They see the excessive dependence of agriculture on chemicals and the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry as a bigger problem. Most farmers are prepared to support a reduction in their use, however, not because of climate or environmental protection, but because they are aware of the negative effects of their use on human health.

This is linked to their perception of the problem of declining food quality. For these reasons, 60 per cent of the farmers surveyed separately produce higher-quality food for their own consumption. They also seek local products from verified sources. Perhaps this perception of insufficient food quality is one of the most important reasons why the farmers surveyed expressed such a high degree of openness to the introduction of environmentally and climate-friendly solutions. Among other things, they strongly support the development of organic farming (80 per cent), the obligation to ensure animal welfare (74 per cent), ensuring crop rotation and biodiversity (73 per cent) or switching farms to renewable energy sources (66 per cent). Forty-eight per cent of respondents were also in favour of reducing industrial farming. However, this willingness does not mean that further transformation of agriculture towards a more sustainable direction will be straightforward.

Agriculture in times of crises

Many Polish farmers are in a difficult economic situation. This is due, among other things, to rising costs, falling farm gate prices, the instability of market demands and a weak position in relation to trade and intermediaries. All this makes it increasingly difficult to make a living from farming. This is also confirmed by IPA’s research, in which more than half of the farmers declared that their farm had made a loss or a zero balance in the last year. Forty-two per cent of those surveyed indicated that a family with two or three children is currently unable to make a living solely from farming. This not only means that farmers have to take on additional paid work. It also creates stress, uncertainty and fears about the future.

For farmers focused on survival, environmental and climate protection issues are not a priority. They also feel lost among frequently changing environmental and climate regulations. They perceive them as complicated. They also do not understand the meaning and purpose of some of them. They lack knowledge of what they could do and how they could do it. Concerns about how the introduction of changes (for example, the transition to organic production) will translate into the situation of farms and the profitability of production are also important.

What is next?

In the context of the challenges mentioned above, it becomes crucial to take systemic actions at various levels.

An industrial agri-food production process focused on intensifying production, increasing productivity and lowering prices is incompatible with climate and environmental protection. What is needed is a change in this system that does not lead to overexploitation of the natural and climate system, but also better protects farmers. Improving their economic situation, including stabilising incomes and making production more profitable, is essential to make the transition. One of the simplest ways to improve the situation of farmers and increase their income is to shorten supply chains and support them to develop direct sales of their products and better reach consumers. The IPA survey shows that both farmers and consumers are very open to such cooperation. However, they need easily accessible tools and solutions to make this possible (for example, better accessibility of markets, bazaars, development of online sales or consumers’ co-operatives).

We also need widespread measures to improve farmers’ access to knowledge on environmental and climate protection methods, as well as tailored advice. Farmers must both understand the meaning and purpose of the proposed solutions and recognise the material and non-material benefits of keeping ecosystems in good condition.

If we want to tackle the challenges we face responsibly, food, like energy, should become the subject of a broad public debate about our security, health and future. It is not only the responsibility of politicians but also of the media to support the initiation and development of this debate.

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