Friday, April 4, 2008

Polish Farmers Frustrated by EU Regulation

A story about Polish farming in today's NYTimes depicts its practices as either hopelessly outdated or on the cutting edge of sustainable, organic production.

The tale is one of small-scale farmers who have not adapted-- and in many cases have no plans to adapt -- to EU agricultural regulations. The story is chock full of information about the delights -- and sustainability-- of Poland's agricultural tradition. Did you know, for example, that Poland boasts a tradition of what we now tout as organic farming? Journalist Elisabeth Rosenthal reports that Poland is "a rare bastion of biological diversity, with 40,000 pairs of nesting storks and thousands of seed varieties that exist nowhere else in the world." It's therefore not surprising that long-time Polish farmers eschew genetically modified varieties. Indeed, contrary to EU and WTO mandates, all 16 Polish states have banned genetically modified organisms.

One reason that this story resonated so greatly with me is that it reminded me of how my maternal grandparents farmed in rural northwest Arkansas: a dirt-floor barn, hand milking, slaughtering on the property, not at a slaughterhouse; plowing with a horse or mule. Like the Polish farmers, they would have pleased Wendell Berry in their sustainable practices.

In Poland now, however, these practices fail to meet EU sanitation standards, which prohibit hand milking and require certain equipment for slaughtering. A consequence of the Polish tradition, a trend to which the small farms cling, is a failure to meet EU regulations, which leads in turn to a reversion to subsistence. Why not enjoy designation as organic farms? The answer, apparently, is too much EU paper work.

Rosenthal queries: Are farmers like these visionaries or Luddites? Are they behind the times -- or ahead of them? Are they a "nostalgic throwback" or the future, assuming they survive? Advocates of these farmers find broader importance in their practices, such as not contributing to climate change and not polluting the environment.

I wonder what this trend portends for the Polish countryside? Without farm income, the reversion to subsistence will surely hurt rural economies, which must already be endangered in an over-crowded Europe.

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