Debate over food self-sufficiency heats up in Czechia as MPs propose new regulation

Ilustrační foto: Julien, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This week a proposal put together by some government and opposition members of the lower-house sparked a heated debate. It suggests imposing a new regulation that would oblige food retailers to ensure that 85 of all non-specialised products they sell are made in the Czech Republic. Politicians and farmers are divided in their opinion, with some seeing it as a welcome boost to Czech agriculture, while others fear it is a state intervention in the market.

Photo: Julien, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Andrej Babiš, photo: ČTK / Ondřej Deml
Speaking at a meeting with representatives of the Chamber of Agriculture almost exactly a year ago, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who made part of his money by dominating the Czech agriculture sector, called the state of food self-sufficiency in the country “catastrophic”.

While he may have used strong words, he was not the first man in government to bring up the subject. State support for strengthening the country’s food self-suffiency had already been brought up in the Social Democrat led government of 2013-2017. It was at this time that the Christian Democrat Agriculture Minister Marián Jurečka began raising awareness about the issue and enacting policies in support of local farmers and agricultural production.

Photo: Marek Detko, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
Now the topic is being brought up again. In March, the government released CZK 3.3 billion from its budget to “support food self-sufficency”. This week, a joint proposal by members of the Chamber of Deputies led by the ANO and SPD parties suggested regulation be put in place which would oblige domestic retailers to ensure that at least 55 percent of the food they offer from 2021 be farmed in the Czech Republic. The compulsory ratio would increase annually until it reached 85 percent by 2027. Backing for the idea also came from the ex-agriculture minister Marián Jurečka, who is now an opposition MP.

Margita Balaštíkova of ANO, was one of the initiators of the proposal and explained her position to Czech Television on Thursday.

Margita Balaštíková, photo: Archive of the Zlín Region
“Shops and food retailers are saying that 80 percent of the products they sell now are from the Czech Republic. If their advertising is correct, there is nothing to worry about, because they already fulfill the condition. As far as the eventual 85 percent minimum is concerned, I think it is time enough for incentives to form and the agriculture sector to restart.”

According to politicians and some members of the agricultural sector who support the regulation, the lack of sufficient domestic production to cover consumer demand concerns various foodstuffs,

For example, the head of the Czech Chamber of Agriculture Zdeněk Jandejsek told Czech Television in April that the situation is very serious when it comes to vegetables.

“We produce around 25 percent of our vegetable consumption. All the pressures that we have experienced over the past 30 years always revolved around the idea that we do not need to focus on production, we can just import food from abroad. I think this was a very bad idea.

“It is necessary we realize that we do not know enough about the quality of imported food from abroad. We do not know what sort of land such produce is grown on, how it is cared for. This has been completely forgotten.

Photo: BlackRiv, Pixabay / CC0
“At home, we have high standards. I think our vegetables are of high quality, some of the best, so it is necessary to start focusing on producing our vegetables at home.”

Meat is also a concern. For example, last year, pork production self-suficiency lay at fewer than 40 percent, while that of poultry at 55 percent.

Nevertheless the proposal has been met with a mixed response.

Some see it as an attempt to further subsidize large agriculture companies in the state. Confronted with this position, Prime Minister Babiš, whom a recent European Commission audit found to be allegedly still in control of Agrofert, the chemical and agriculture focused holding he founded, denied that this is the case. In fact, he said that he had asked his ANO party MPs not to vote for the proposal, but that he was still in support of self-sufficiency, further arguing on the CNN Prima News channel that it would be helpful in a potential crisis.

Jaroslav Šebek, photo: Archive of Jaroslav Šebek
It is also interesting to note that even among the group perhaps most likely to profit from a state focus on self-sufficency - small farmers - there is not an indication of full support.

The Association of Czech Private Farmers has called the recent proposal “completely absurd and counterproductive”.

In a statement issued last week, its Chairman Jaroslav Šebek said that while he is in favour of seeing more Czech-made foodstuffs on supermarket tills, this should only come as a result of consumer choice rather than through regulation. He defended his view on Czech Television.

“The Agrarian Chamber as well as the Federation of the Food and Drink Industries has the tendency to keep shifting the issue towards some sort of self-sufficency problem, whose solution is supposed to save us. I think a much more useful solution is to talk about a certain food security. We should select which basic products we are able to produce and which of those that we do not farm are of strategic importance to the country.”

Tomáš Prouza from the Czech Association of Trade and Tourism provided a consumer angle, arguing that restricting the food on shelves will logically lead to higher prices and that Czech producers will thus be able to increase prices with impunity.

Foto: ČT24
Meanwhile, Martin Pýcha, the head of another group of food producers, the Agricultural Association of the Czech Republic, called food self-sufficency “the road towards freedom”.

In a Wednesday interview with news site iDnes.cz, Pýcha criticised current EU rules on the level of domestic support for agriculture, saying that farmers in countries such as France and the Netherlands are disproportionately favoured, because they were able to secure more favourable support for their produce when their states entered the union.

He also said that the Czech Republic is just at 60 percent of the average level of agricultural production within the EU and well behind Germany and Austria in terms of livestock production income per hectare. However, this point is disputed by his counterpart Mr Šebek who says the difference in subsidies is a consequence of higher upkeep costs in the neighbouring countries.

Pekka Kinnunen, photo: Archiv of Pekka Kinnunen
Interestingly, when it comes to the question of food security in the Czech Republic, the country and its surrounding region is actually doing relatively well in global comparison. At least if one follows the metrics of a new study conducted by the University of Aalto in Finland which was published last month.

In its research, the team of scholars around Dr Pekka Kinnunen, focused on the distance between where key agricultural produce such as wheat, corn, rice and lentils comes from and where it is consumed. They found that only 27 percent of the world's population could get their temperate cereal grains within a radius of fewer than 100 kilometres.

However, Central Europe ranked among those parts of the world with the most optimal distances between production and consumption, along with Southern Europe and the United States.