By Ruta Śpiewak*, Institute of Rural and Agricultural Development, Polish Academy of Sciences
At the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, a team of researchers from the Institute of Rural and Agricultural Development of the Polish Academy of Sciences conducted research on a non-representative sample of farmers on how they cope during a pandemic. The result of this research was that those respondents who chose to or continued to sell their products through short food chains fared best in the COVID-19 situation. Not only did they not lose out financially, but they also had a greater sense of agency, contact with direct customers (valuable even if only virtual). The completely new, surprising and difficult situation of the COVID-19 outbreak has shown that it is local, short food chains that are most effective for farmers and desired by consumers. The environmental issue cannot be ignored either. The close contact that farmers have with consumers means that they pay more attention to production methods and quality, knowing that their carrots and plums go to the consumer and not to an intermediary, and that therefore more profit stays in the producer’s pocket.
Other research carried out by the author of this text and Wojciech Goszczyński indicates that consumers or members of alternative food chains, which, to simplify the argument, let us consider them to be the same as short food chains, are mainly people with different types of resources, not always available to the general public. I am referring primarily to financial resources, but also to the resources of time and knowledge necessary for finding and appreciating high-quality food. These products are usually more expensive than those available in large supermarkets. Buying them often requires more time, both in the buying process itself and in preparing the meals from scratch. It also requires a certain competence to be able to appreciate higher quality products, to know how to find them. The same research shows that selling within short food chains is demanding for farmers. They not only have to deal with food production itself (often organic and therefore more time-consuming), but also with marketing, communication with customers, accounting for subsidies. The farm advisory system does little to support farmers in this regard. At the same time, there is a lack of food or climate education in schools so that young people appreciate the value of high quality food.
The Polish state, contrary to its declarations, to a limited extent supports shortening food chains, building local identity through food products. There are a number of provisions enabling sales through Agricultural Retail Trade, which aim to make it easier for farmers to sell products produced on their own farm. Figures for 2021 show that there are only 10,771 farms reported (recall that officially there are 1 million 317 thousand in Poland) and 3 farm slaughterhouses, which allow the slaughter of animals from their own farm and neighbouring farms. A decline in the number of markets has been observed all the time. In the last decade alone, the number of traders selling at markets has decreased by 40% (this figure does not only refer to food sales). Let’s admit that this looks overly modest.
The power of change lies in grassroots activities. In Poland, food co-operatives are being dynamically created with the aim of bringing the consumer and the producer closer together, on the basis of trust, mutual respect and bypassing any intermediaries. As the vast majority of food co-operatives in Poland are informal entities, it is difficult to estimate their exact number and age. The newly formed umbrella organisation, SKOOPS – Network of Food Co-operatives, managed to identify 60 food co-operatives across the country in autumn 2021, with between 20 and 300 members each.
Food sovereignty, at a time of multiple crises (pandemic, war, climate catastrophe, etc.) is certainly something to strive for as soon as possible, as it provides much greater food security and increases the chances of limiting climate catastrophe. Whether the practice of food sovereignty can be implemented universally, or whether it remains, as it is now, the slogan of enthusiasts and visionaries, depends on strong public institutions, public trust and the cooperation of various types of actors. Currently, in the world, including Poland, there seems to be a large gap between declarations of readiness to strengthen food sovereignty and the political and economic practice.
*About the author: Ruta is D. in sociology, assistant at the Department of Rural Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. She conducts research in the field of social change in rural areas, rural development and organic farming. She deals with food communities from the theoretical and practical side by being a part of them and studying them.
You can read also the study: Food system social innovators. Experiences from Wroclaw, Poland by Marta Sylla, Małgorzata Świąder, Monika Onyszkiewicz