Poles Apart

28 Feb 2003

A significant cultural change has taken place in recent years. Jolted by a series of fairly traumatic events, people living in Europe have come to realize that agriculture has strategic importance after all. It had no longer seemed a central issue and seemed destined to be only of historical interest. But, in the wake of scandals and controversies and with public opinion increasingly sensitive to food matters and subjected to political and economic pressure, we suddenly find agricultural development and rural life under the spotlight. And while the European Union has been forced to change aspects of its agricultural policy—tacitly admitting that the old agro-industrial approach, with its emphasis on productivity, is untenable—the imminent entry of new member countries to the EU presents novel challenges even before the present fifteen members have time to change course. Take Poland, for example, the most agricultural of the ten candidate countries. The entry of Poland into the EU risks provoking revolutionary effects for small farmers both in Poland and in the EU—and these effects may prove to be very damaging, if measures are not adopted acknowledging the large differences between them. Polish agriculture is in fact very different from the present European model. About 26 percent of the Polish labor force is employed in agriculture, against between 3-10 percent in EU member states. There is a very large number of small to tiny farms that produce little or nothing for the market, surviving by exchange and self-consumption.

There is, unfortunately, widespread poverty, but agricultural production in Polish rural areas is significantly diversified and the country has huge resources of biodiversity. It is also worth noting that there is not much of the chemical pollution caused by intensive agricultural methods. While these factors might suggest excellent prospects for developing a sustainable agricultural sector, paving the way for good production practices, gastronomic culture is still fairlylimited. This is the price Poland pays for the standardization imposed during communist rule. Furthermore, in the large cities scant attention seems to be paid to food quality, traceability and tradition. Although shops in Warsaw are comparable to those in the West as regards the price and supply of consumer goods, you only need to walk round supermarkets to realize that low prices are the main factor affecting the purchase of food. You only need ten or twenty euros to buy what would be an unimaginable quantity of food for us. True, a small group of people is keen to change this situation, rediscovering and safeguarding Poland’s natural heritage and reviving its gastronomic identity (and their efforts deserve to be supported). But there are also many who urge Poland to modernize its agricultural sector, in view of its alleged non-profitability and backwardness. The food industry, they say, is growing at an incredible rate, but agriculture is not keeping up; the best land is still state-owned and should be sold to foreign investors.

With all this talk of copying the European model and ‘harmonizing’, there is obviously a real risk that the Polish countryside will be cannibalized. In the process, the problems which we have already experienced in the West will be shifted there, and a rural society will be destroyed, when all it needs is services and infrastructure. Given that we are facing a situation which largely mirrors that of Western Europe during the 1960s, and given that we can benefit from hindsight, why commit the same errors all over again? It is true that Poland presents an unsettling challenge to the EU, and also that it has complex problems to solve, but why don’t we exploit the situation to create a sort of laboratory to test new ideas of sustainable development (shared by a wide array of world-class thinkers)? We could apply new types of local policy, ensure small farmers were properly paid, and encourage a revival of gastronomic traditions based on quality and variety. Here we have yet another case in which joint efforts and exchanges between different cultures could be constructive and mutually beneficial for both countries.

First printed in La Stampa on 16/02/2003

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