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Why Poland’s farmers oppose the Green Deal

Five generations of the Włodarski family have farmed a small plot of land in Pułtusk county in Poland’s central Mazowsze province.

“There used to be 11 families who farmed here 40 years ago. Now there’s only three,” Henryk Włodarski told RTÉ News, listing out the names of neighbouring families who no longer farm.

Mr Włodarski and his wife, Agnieszka Włodarska, are small fruit and grain farmers.

Like many small and medium-sized farmers in Poland, the Włodarski family is opposed to the EU’s Green Deal or, more specifically, the bloc’s Food to Fork Strategy, which is the agricultural tranche of the deal.

The Green Deal sets out targets for EU member states to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

For farmers, that means introducing more environmentally-friendly farming methods.

The family own a modest nine acres of land and sell their produce locally during the summer months, sustaining a way of life that is gradually in decline.

There are more than 1.3 million farms in Poland, but that is almost 15% fewer than a decade ago.

20 years of EU membership and CAP subsidies have helped to modernise the sector and transition towards larger, commercial farming.

Data from the European Environment Agency show that Poland’s agricultural emissions are lower than the EU average, but they are projected to increase by between 10-15% by 2030.

That projected increase, which is not what the EU wants to see, is largely due to the growth in industrial-sized animal production.

For instance, Poland is now Europe’s largest poultry producer.

However, the average size of a Polish farm remains small – about 30 acres – according to Poland’s central statistics office, and small farmers still account for just over half of all the country’s agricultural land.

Agnieszka Włodarska and Henryk Włodarski, fruit and grain farmers from east-central Poland

The Włodarskis say rising production costs are making it difficult to earn a living.

“The big farmers are also complaining because fertilisers are very expensive,” said Mr Włodarski.

“When I compare the cost of grain to the cost of fertiliser, you now need to sell 4 tonnes of grain to buy one tonne of fertiliser.”

Ms Włodarska, who works a second job “to get by”, said the sale price of their grain had decreased by 50% since the start of the war in Ukraine.

It is a common complaint among Polish grain and food producers who, for more than a year, have also protested against cheaper Ukrainian food imports entering the Polish market.

Under the Green Deal, producers will need to reduce their carbon admissions, which many larger producers in Poland, such animal breeders, oppose.

The deal, when originally published in 2020, required farmers to reduce their pesticide use by 50% by 2030.

Another element requires farmers to keep 4% of their land fallow in order to improve biodiversity.

That rankles with the Włodarskis, who use almost every patch of land to grow produce.

“We are not happy that we will be required to pay taxes on land that must be kept uncultivated,” said Ms Włodarska.

Higher productions costs, reduced profits, opposition to the Green Deal and anger at Ukrainian food imports – it all makes for a perfect storm.

Those grievances have manifested in a number of mass nationwide protests by farmers since the start of the year.

Farmers protest in Krakow last month

On 20 March, an estimated 70,000 Polish farmers blocked more than 550 roads across the country to highlight their demands, causing traffic disruptions to cities and large towns.

Mr Włodarski, Ms Włodarska and their 20-year-old son Bartolomiej took part in their county’s local action, parking their tractor and blocking a motorway route to Warsaw along with other farmers.

Polish farmers’ associations argue the terms of the Green Deal will be too costly to implement at a time when many farmers are dealing with a surge in production costs.

The European Commission has taken note of farmers’ protests against the Green Deal in a number of member states in recent months and, in February, dropped its requirement to cut pesticide use by half by 2030.

Green parties and environmental rights groups across the bloc have criticised the U-turn.

A majority of MEPs in the European Parliament, in a push led by the main conservative EPP bloc, had rejected the Commission’s proposal in a vote last November leaving the EU executive with little political capital to maintain the pesticide regulation.

The Commission has also given farmers a one-year exemption from the requirement on maintaining fallow land, but even that has not won over the Włodarskis.

“This year, it’s 4% and next year it will be 8%. And gradually, it’s going to reach 25%,” said a skeptical Mr Włodarski, plucking figures from the air.

Their trust in politicians and the EU is in short supply.

Paulina Sobiesiak-Penszko, the director of the sustainability and climate programme at the Polish Institute of Public Affairs, told RTÉ News that the protests are a result of the “money crisis” that farmers face, which, she added, started before the time of the Green Deal.

“We have a huge communication problem related to the implementation of the European Green Deal,” said Ms Sobiesiak-Penszko.

“I think that the introduction of such huge changes requires preparation and an extensive information policy and this is currently lacking.”

It is easy to understand why.

The Polish government’s strategic plan for agriculture is more than 1,500 pages long, making it inaccessible for many.

Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, an economic liberal who leads a pro-EU coalition government, has adopted a protectionist approach to the issue.

He told Polish farmers in February that he would request further changes to the Green Deal in Brussels.

Mr Tusk and his agriculture minister have also held talks with their Ukrainian counterparts to resolve the food imports dispute.

After meeting Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal in Warsaw last month, Mr Tusk said both countries were close to finding an agreement.

Solving the dispute over Ukrainian imports might take some of the sting out of the protests.

Experts have said that online groups with links to Russia have been fueling the farmer protests in Poland, pushing anti-Ukrainian sentiment over the food imports dispute.

A family farm in Pogorzelec, Pułtusk county

Not all farmers are protesting though.

Marcin Hermanowicz is another fifth generation fruit farmer.

The 45 year-old father of two, runs his family’s apple farm on roughly 30 acres in Grójec county, about 70km south of Warsaw.

In the summer months, endless neat rows of fruits trees bloom across the county’s fields.

Mr Hermanowicz said the Green Deal was “difficult to implement” because “farmers do not understand why it is happening”.

“I also do not fully understand why some products are being withdrawn.”

He said that a pesticide his family business uses on apples was due to be restricted under EU guidelines, without new research being published on why it was being banned.

Mr Hermanowicz has not taken part in the recent protests, but said he understands those who do.

“I think the main reason why growers are protesting is that their income is going down. The Green Deal is giving growers other costs without actually getting other benefits,” he said.

However, the Green Deal, in his view, was not to blame for reduced incomes.

Low prices offered to farmers by supermarket chains and competition from non-EU imports were more of a factor, he said.

“What I’m being paid for apples is the same as I’ve been paid 20 years ago, more or less. My costs grew by 50%,” said Mr Hermanowicz.

Under his watch, the family business has pursued new export markets and diversified, producing a cider and an apple brandy.

Ms Sobiesiak-Penszko said that Poland was late to prepare farmers for the green transition, and that now farmers’ perspectives needed to be taken into account to prepare for “the challenges they may face”.

In her view, the protests will not end before the European Parliament elections in early June.

“I think that, that after this protest, the European Green Deal will change,” she said.

“There is a lot of talk about moving away from strict rules towards rather softer incentives”.

That approach could prove more popular with small farmers who currently see the deal as a threat to their future.

Ms Włodarska said that, in their rural area, “you can really count on one hand” the number of young people who “want to stay in the countryside”.

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