Since Poland's new government was elected last October it has moved to protect the country's 1.3 million small farmers, writes Julian Rose. First it freed those arrested for protesting corporate land grabs, now it is seeking to lighten oppressive hygiene regulations, and next it may support a new Food Act that would ban GMOs, and legislate for national food security and food sovereignty.
Elected in October 2015, Poland's new Law and Justice government is responding to a campaign to relax the repressive food and hygiene regulations that have dogged the Country's small and medium sized farmers.
Recent governments since Poland joined the EU in 2004 have outlawed the sale of on-farm processed foods unless farmers establish their operations as a separate business and in separate hygienically sanitised buildings.
That's competely unaffordable to the great majority of small farmers whose holdings typically range from between 3 and 10 hectares.
In response the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside (ICPPC, of which I am chairman) has been campaigning to give the country's 1.3 million small family farms the freedom to produce foods without needless, burdensome regulations, and to sell their produce locally.
Now the government is responding positively to the campaign and adopting key elements of its agenda. It appears ready to recognise food sovereignty as a fundamental citizen's right. There are also signs that it might develop policies to raise Poland's 'food security' - based on targets of national self-sufficiency in food production and consumption.
This reflects the aims of the ICPPC's 'Charter for Real Food' (see below) which outlines the key factors essential to maintaining food security and food sovereignty in Poland. The Charter has already been signed by a numerous farmers, organizatons and individuals and has been sent to parliamentarians and to the Minister of Agriculture and The Environment.
A new Food Act to guarantee farmer and consumer rights
At the same time we are working with farmers and parliamentarians from the Kukiz'15 movement which attracted 12% of the vote in the recent (October 2015) elections. We are currently drafting a new Food Act that will spell out farmer friendly' supply and demand conditions that are critical to the survival of family farming traditions in Poland.
Writing the new act ourselves, in close consultation with other farmers, has enabled us to set the situation in its true context. In this, we have been fortunate to have the support of Jaroslaw Sachajko, the new Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, and a prominent member of Kukiz'15 in the Seime (Polish parliament).
It is noteworthy that the government is open for such a 'citizen led' initiative. Hammering out the exact wording among a group farmers and supportive consumers is a tough undertaking - but one which ICPPC Founder Jadwiga Lopata has taken on with determination. Working closely with Sachajko has also enabled us to form the wording of the new act into the necessary legal terminology to be presented to parliament.
One of the difficulties surrounds the question of how one defines 'small farms'. It is a perennial problem which I have come up against during decades of lobbying on behalf of small and medium sized famers in the UK.
Wherever one sets the cut-off point seems arbitrary and yet being imprecise also runs into problems. It's a moveable feast - and one that exposes the abstract nature of bureaucratic delineations in all walks of life.
Farmers arrested for land grab protest freed without charge
For those who have followed the story of the farmers arrested protesting land grabs, particularly in North West Poland, I can report that the farmers who had been imprisoned last October for blocking the Polish Land Agency's attempt to sell off prime farmland to foreign speculators, were freed without charge immediately after the elections.
Progress has also been made in tightening the law in order to prevent such foreign sell-offs occurring again. However much needs to be done to secure this position, and just at the time when the legal right for outsiders to purchase Polish farmland is only one year away.
Overall, what we are witnessing is the potential for a more cohesive survival plan to emerge for the much maligned small family farms of Poland. One must remember that Poland is a big country, rich in natural resources and located right in the heart of Europe.
The European Commission stated outright, back in 2001, that it is the EU's intention to eradicate the peasant farming tradition in Poland - and no doubt anywhere else where it survives - and to restructure its agriculture by merging small farms into large scale enterprises able to 'be competitive in the world market'. We all know what that means: large scale agrichemical monocultures exporting commodities onto the highly volatile global market place.
The battle to prevent such an outcome has been the main task undertaken by ICPPC since its inception in 2000. Initially this centred around a major anti GMO campaign which successfully kept genetically modified seeds out of the country and led on to a government ban on the import and planting of GM crops in 2006 (also then by Law and Justice).
This ban has held, but only just, as the Civic Platform government (under now President of the European Council Donald Tusk) lacked the will to implement an effective monitoring programme.
Next - a ban on GM animal feed?
Now that Law and Justice is back in power - and with a large majority - we have the chance of moving forward on this front as well as rekindling interest in an outright ban of GM animal feed. Such a ban had been proposed by Law and Justice back in 2006, but never came to fruition.
We have always viewed a bottom-up renaissance of real food and real farming as a long term goal of ICPPC. If we can get a genuinely farmer friendly food act through parliament in the coming months, another king sized obstacle to this vision will have been removed.
With the road clear of GMOs and repressive food regulations, maybe entrepreneurial Poles living abroad will be inspired to return to their native land and become instrumental in kick-starting a revival of the sagging rural economy.
Whatever emerges in 2016, we remain committed to helping 'hold the Polish line' made up as it is of small and medium sized independent family farms, forming both the bedrock and backbone of the nation's essential food security and sovereignty.
The fruits of this ongoing struggle should ultimately be felt far beyond Poland's borders.
Julian Rose is President of International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside.
Charter for Real Food
In respect for the fine tradition of peasant and family farming that uniquely maintains the rich and productive biodiversity of the Polish Countryside and some of the finest farm foods available in Europe, we (the below) call upon the government to put into immediate affect the points stated in this 'Charter for Real Food':
-That special dispensation is given to small and medium sized independent family farms to process and sell their home raised and home processed farmhouse foods without being required to comply with inappropriate and unnecessary hygiene and sanitary conditions designed for large commercial businesses.
-That recognition and support is given to the vital role that small and medium sized independent family farms play in protecting and maintaining the vital food sovereignty and food security of the nation's primary food supply.
-That equally, recognition and support is given to the key role that small and medium-sized family farms play in protecting the essential biodiversity of nature that characterises the special quality of the Polish Countryside.
-That consumers, requiring good quality natural foods in order to maintain a robust and long lasting natural health, are given ample opportunity to choose to buy such foods from within their local communities.
-That, following on from this, small shops, schools, local restaurants and markets are not restricted or prohibited from purchasing a fully diverse range of local foods from (good) local farmers.
-That further to this, consumers are encouraged to understand the superior health value of local fresh and flavourful foods that maintain their full complement of natural vitamins and nutrients.
-That a sincere effort is made to catalyse a renaissance of 'real food from real farmers', the benefits of which will extend to a rejuvenation of local rural economies and a flowering of the arts and culture of the Polish Countryside.
-That the government, gives ample opportunity to young and aspiring farmers, to rent productive land currently held by government agencies, for the purpose of maintaining a career in farming both now and in perpetuity for their children.