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Popular Science: Energetic Metabolism of Agriculture in the Czech Republic and Poland after the Fall of the Communist Regime

Global processes like climatic changes, growth of the human population and dependence on fossil fuels cause biodiversity loss and the endangerment of whole ecosystems. It is possible that the potential of the biosphere will not be able to satisfy the demands of human production and consumption. Efforts for the sustainability of agricultural production require an increasingly better understanding of energy flow in ecosystems. In agriculture, energy is not only the food foundation, but it is a crucial part in the circulation of elements (esp. carbon) and in the hydrologic cycle.

A team of Czech and Polish scientists started to explore the issue of energy flow in agricultural ecosystems in both countries after the fall of the Communist regime (1989). They carried out a comparison of the energetic productivity of each agricultural system in the context of changes in land utilization and in the context of socio-political changes. The first step was to analyse the changes in farming from 1989 up to the present.

The Czech Republic has a temperate Central European climate; the land consists mostly of an undulating landscape near border mountains. In Poland, there is a similar climate with an influence arriving from the ocean; the land consists mostly of waste flatlands, framed in the south with mountains. In both countries, the arable land makes approximately 2/3 of the agricultural land; in both cereals, potatoes, sugar beet, oilseed rape, hop, fruit and vegetables are planted. Crop production predominates in both countries. Hog, cattle, sheep, horse and poultry farming is important but does not prevail.

While agriculture in the Czech Republic has been heavily industrialised, in Poland, to a large extent, a traditional structure of small land owners was maintained and survived the entire Communist era. Thus spatial diversity is a characteristic of Polish agriculture. Massive collectivisation took place in the Czech Republic, causing spatial uniformity in the farming system.

After the fall of the Communist regime, both countries underwent a similar development. Many studies distinguish between the phase of the breakdown of the previous socio-economic system (1989-1993) and the phase of economic restructuralisation (1993-2005).

In the Czech Republic, the restitution of nationalised grounds and estates took place, but the vast majority of the ca. two million owners do not cultivate their own land but lease it to others. This is why large companies dominate in the Czech Republic: 8% of the economic subjects control 72% of the farming land, family farms make up only 13%.

In Poland, on the contrary, small farmers have 9/10 of the farming land. Polish agriculture provides employment to 10.4% of the economically active population in comparison to 3% in the Czech Republic.

Since 1990, the number of workers in agriculture has constantly declined in both Poland and the Czech Republic – by more than 40%. The proportion of farming land per capita has fallen as well.

After initial slumps in the production of nearly all kinds of crops, an increase in grain production occurred in both countries. In Poland, there has been an increase of fodder plant production as well; that was not the case in the Czech Republic, where stock farming is not so predominant.

Grains are the most common kind of crops in both countries. In the Czech Republic it made up 39% in 2016. In Poland it steadily makes up to 50%. Oily plants are popular as well, especially oilseed rape, which has risen in Poland from 3% to 6% and in the Czech Republic from 3.5% to 11%.

In Poland, the amount of land with permanent plants is continuously rising – Poland is the largest exporter of apples in Europe; in the Czech Republic an important rise in wine-growing occurred after its accession to the EU.

In 1990-2016, the amount of pastureland and grassland on farming land has grown from 8% to 20% in the Czech Republic; in Poland it is steadily about 22%.

Especially in the Czech border lands, a large part of arable land has changed to pasturage. In both countries, arable land is on the decrease (besides changing into hayfields and pastureland) due to development in the suburbs of big cities, and because of the use of fallow land. Both countries lost roughly 20% of their farming land in 1990-2016. Farming land has decreased in Western Europe as well; though there it was because of planned forestation.

The amount of cattle has decreased in the Czech Republic by 60%, hogs by 65% and poultry by 33%; in Poland it was a decrease of 40% for cattle, 45% hogs and 20% poultry.

And what about changes in energetic streams in agricultural ecosystems in 1990-2016? The authors used the concept of social metabolism and they explored the interactions between the economic system and nature with the Energy and Material Stream Mapping method. They calculated the proportion between input and output energy.

This final ratio offers information about the total effectiveness of the agricultural system from an ecological and economical perspective.

The input of energy in agricultural ecosystems (fossil fuels, seed stock, production of fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) in the years of 1993-2012 has decreased in both countries: in the Czech Republic from 60 PJ to 44 PJ and in Poland from 268 PJ to 249 PJ.

The output in the Czech Republic has sunk from 363 PJ to 271 PJ in plant farming and from 27 PJ to 17 PJ in animal farming. In Poland, plant farming has decreased from 1500 PJ to 1421 PJ, while animal farming has risen from 83 PJ up to 102 PJ.

In 2012, the energetic input in Poland reached 22 GJ/ha, in the Czech Republic it was only 13 GJ/ha (in early 90’s, the input in both countries was about 14 GJ/ha).

In the Czech Republic, the rate of energetic input and output held steady at about 16.6% in the examined period, whereas in Poland it grew from 17.9% to 21.3%.

The accession to the EU opened up access to the Common Agricultural Policy for both countries, which implies direct payments to all farms over 1 ha. This led to a recovery in production – and also to the higher usage of artificial fertilizers.

The production of dominant crops is energetically more effective in the Czech Republic. Anyhow, from the viewpoint of total yield from biomass on the area of farming land, Poland is more effective, in spite of its agriculture showing a higher energetic input.

It is interesting how powerfully socio-economic mechanisms have influenced the situation, especially in the Czech Republic.

A more general trend in modernisation and an increase in effectiveness becomes visible as well, especially in the Czech Republic. Poland is somehow slowed down by the structure of small and scattered, and consequently less effective, agricultural units.

So we can observe that even such similar countries like Poland and the Czech Republic have taken different paths in the agricultural structure and its meaning for the national economy, as well in the input-output rate and labour efficiency.

The Czech Republic focused on plant crop production, Poland on stock farming and becoming a leading exporter. The total effectiveness is higher in the Czech Republic, where it is continually growing, proving the positive effect of the reduction of stock farming on the return of energy and investment.

It must be mentioned that Czech agriculture is focused on the production and export of raw materials (grains, oilseed rape) and most of its food is imported. In the future, this trend might be balanced with the production and consumption of local food. This may immunize Czech agriculture against global economic fluctuations. Poland has gone through the complicated transformation more easily – anyhow, at the price of slower modernisation, higher fossil fuel energy and inexpensive exports of agricultural products. It has certain deficiencies in effectiveness and in the amount of products that are unlikely to be resolved without state assistance.

The need for the consolidation of both countries on the global markets is clear – as political improvements of the situation for local producers and their energetic effectiveness.

The authors hope their study will move those who are in charge to formulate sustainable agricultural policies. It is not only about proper and economically-effective farming, but also about caring for the countryside. The non-productive functions of agriculture (water economy, biodiversity) are unfortunately tragically neglected at the present time.

Grešlová, P., Štych, P., Salata, T., Hernik, J., Knížková, I., Bičík, I., ... & Noszczyk, T. (2019). Agroecosystem energy metabolism in Czechia and Poland in the two decades after the fall of communism: From a centrally planned system to market oriented mode of production. Land use policy82, 807-820.

Roman Figura

Published: Oct 14, 2019 07:10 AM

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