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Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Ms. Hilal Elver, at the end of her visit to Poland (18 – 25 April 2016)


Warsaw, 25 April 2016   

Members of the press, ladies and gentlemen,
Dobry dzień. (Good day in Polish)

I am addressing you today at the conclusion of my official visit to Poland, which I undertook at the invitation of the Government from 18 to 25 April 2016. My objective during this visit has been to identify the main obstacles hindering the full realization of the right to food and propose strategies for tackling these obstacles and improving the enjoyment of rights by the most vulnerable in society. In particular, I wished to learn about how Poland, as a country whose economy experienced transition from centralized system to market economy, adjusted its agricultural system and how this transition affected small-scale farmers and those belonging to vulnerable groups.

Firstly, I would like to thank the Government of Poland for the invitation to visit the country and for facilitating this visit and for the open and constructive spirit in which dialogues were conducted. I very much appreciate the spirit of openness with which I was able to engage in dialogue with the authorities. During my stay, I met with various Government representatives from Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Maritime Economy and Inland Navigation, Ministry of Development, Agency for Restructuring and Modernisation of Agriculture, Agricultural Market Agency, Agricultural Property Agency and Prison Service. I also met representatives from the Supreme Court, the Ombudsman’s Office for Human Rights Defenders and Ombudsman’s Office for Children as well as representatives from international organizations, academia, and several members of civil society organizations.

During the visit, I also met with several Polish farmers and producers ranging from apple growers to beekeepers.

I would like to offer my sincere gratitude to everyone who took the time to meet with me, particularly those who shared their personal experiences, as their contributions have been vital to the success of my visit. I am also very grateful to the United Nations Information Centre for organizing this press conference.

Finally, I would like to emphasize at the outset that the following statement outlines my preliminary findings and recommendations based on the information gathered during my visit. My final report will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2017.

Current legislative framework to realize the right to food

First, I would like to mention my observations on the Polish legislation on the right to food.

As a State Party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Poland has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food and it has committed itself to undertake the appropriate steps, to the maximum of its available resources, to ensure the realisation of the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food (art. 2(1) and art. 11 (1). Poland is also party to other core international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, all of which contain provisions explicitly related to the right to adequate food. These ratified international agreements are sources of binding law in Poland, in accordance with the Polish Constitution.

However, the right to food is not explicitly enshrined in the Constitution or any national legislation in Poland. The right to food might be protected in connection with the right to life and the right to health stipulated in article 68 of the Constitution, and/or the protection of environment that is explicitly mentioned in article 74 as well as legislation concerning consumer protection (article 76). More importantly, Polish Constitution protects family farms as forming the basis of the agricultural system (article 23). These rights are closely linked to the right to food and are most of the times, adjudicated by national administrative courts. However, there is no direct justiciablity of the right to food as a human right in the Polish legal system.

Justiciability of economic social and cultural rights including the right to food, means that individuals who claim to be victims of violations of these rights are able to file a complaint before an independent and impartial body, to request adequate remedies and to have any remedy enforced. I would like to emphasize that in order to protect human rights, judicial remedy is fundamental.

I would like to stress that at each level within the national framework, whether it is the Constitution or laws, adherences to the principles of human rights and upholding the rule of law is crucial in a democratic society.  The proper functioning of national courts as guardians of national legislations has an impact on the enjoyment of the adequate standard of living including the right to food.

Moreover, it is critical to have an overall legal framework related to the protection of right to food. In Poland, the laws related to food security and food safety are sectorial and are focused on food adequacy and food availability, but not on the accessibility of food. I also observed that the institutional structure for implementing these laws is fragmented without a centralized coordinated body, or master plan for national food security.

Agricultural sector and food production in Poland

Poland is considered as one of the most important global producers of agricultural and horticultural products with about half of its total area being agricultural land.

Approximately 12 per cent of the employment in Poland is in agriculture and I have learned that agriculture composes an important part of the Polish economy, which is also strongly linked to the socio-economic factors that affect the living standards, the social structure, and more importantly, historical legacy of the Polish people.

However, there are some difficulties. The quality of agricultural land in Poland is relatively inadequate for agriculture with a high percentage of poor and acidified soils limiting the usefulness of agricultural land. Water stress also limits the agricultural activity as much of the water comes from precipitation. Despite these unfavourable conditions, some of Poland’s food production account for a significant share of world production, such as Polish apples.

Innovative agricultural technologies, knowledge and effective organic fertilizer coupled with financial support from the European Union and the Government has resulted in increased yield in agricultural production. After the accession to the European Union more than 1.4 million Polish farmers have been included into a system of supporting farmer’s income under the Common Agricultural Policy. As a result, Poland introduced the Single Area Payment scheme, which grants financial support to a farmer proportionally to the crop area, regardless of agricultural production volume. In addition to subsidies, farmers are exempted from income tax and social security payments. Also, financial aid provided to young farmers allows them to continue the family farming tradition and to gain independence and competitiveness.

However, despite the increase in production, ironically, the profit margin for products is decreasing and Polish farmers are faced with the competition within and outside of the European Union in terms of market access. Furthermore, after a political embargo, apple growers especially had difficulty finding suitable markets for their products. Unfortunately, politically imposed embargoes often have a significant impact on innocent citizens’ livelihood.

While the number of small-scale farmers in Poland is decreasing, nonetheless, small-scale farmers or family farms make up a large portion in the Polish agricultural scenery. Polish smallholder farmers have formed cooperatives, federations of cooperatives, and community-supported agriculture systems to gain negotiating power to compete against giant trade companies in the international market. As cooperatives, small-scale farmer can take benefit from collective actions throughout their supply chain such as collective purchasing of seeds, collective use of farming machines and sharing processing facilities and transportation. These cooperatives are recognized and legally supported in line with the 2000 Act on Agricultural Producers’ Organization. I observed that the oligopoly of the few supermarket chains and agricultural companies that capture the whole supply chain of the food industry is pushing the smallholder farmers from the market in Poland.

In addition, as many as 8,000 Polish farmers, together with Polish Federation of Rural Tourism, are offering tourism attractions in farmland, also known as eco-tourism and agro-tourism, which provides alternative opportunity to sustain their livelihoods as well as a learning experience for city dwellers.

Proposed law on halting sale of farmland

Just a few days before my visit commenced, the Polish Parliament adopted the proposed “Act on Halting Sale of Real Estate of the State Treasury Agricultural Property Reserve and Amending Certain Other Acts”. The Act aims to strengthen the protection of agricultural land in Poland from speculative investments by domestic and foreign buyers.

Pending the President’s signature, the proposed Act is expected to come into force on 1 May 2016 just in time when the 12-year grace period for sales of agricultural land to foreigners after EU accession expires this month.

While the proposed Act will still allow free trade between farmers with some strict criteria and provides some exceptions, it will make it difficult for industrial producers, individuals without farming experience and non-Polish and EU citizens to buy large tracts of land. The Agricultural Property Agency will be tasked to review and authorize the sale of farmland in accordance with the criteria laid out in the proposed Act.

While it is still too early to assess the impact of this proposed Act, I would like to underscore that legislations with good intentions may have unintended consequences, which may negatively impact the livelihood of small-scale farmers and family farms and in turn, the quality of food produced in Poland.

If and when the proposed Act enters into force and is implemented, I would like to emphasize that individuals must be guaranteed with adequate access to appeal to the administrative proceedings in the event an individual is wrongly denied of their right to purchase farmland. Also, I reiterate that such process should be transparent, impartial and easy for the ordinary individuals and farmers. I urge the Government to provide legal aid and support to the relevant people to the extent possible. The key to the success of this proposed Act will be in the implementation of the law in practice in accordance with human rights principles.

Poverty and social assistance

One of the major features of the right to food is accessibility and affordability. Individuals should be able to afford food for an adequate diet without compromising any other basic needs, such as education, health or housing. Poverty and low income are major reasons for not being able to access sufficient and nutritious food.

I would like to reiterate the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s concern regarding child poverty in Poland. In recent years the poverty rate for children is higher in all age groups (0-18 years) compared to earlier years, and higher than for the rest of the population, with 10 per cent of children facing extreme poverty. Furthermore, children in rural areas and poor families are most affected by the lack of access to adequate food and nutrition
The Polish Government is carrying out ‘State aid in feeding programme’ which aims to reduce the phenomenon of malnutrition of children and youth from low-income families or families in a difficult situation, with particular emphasis on students living in rural areas, elderly, or disabled persons. The programme provides aids in the form of meal, cash for meal, or food or other benefit in kind.

While measures are in place to protect those in socio-economically vulnerable categories, I note with concern that disaggregated data on extreme poverty and poverty both in rural and urban areas with specific focus on gender, different age group, education, wealth, family size, among others, do not exist. In order to sufficiently monitor those vulnerable groups in need, disaggregated data must be collected and analysed and I recommend the Polish Government to conduct related surveys and studies.

Healthy, balanced diet and eating disorders

Due to changes in the modern diet and dietary habits, obesity and psychological disorder such as bulimia and anorexia have been identified as emerging issues in Poland. Obesity levels for Polish children have increased during the last decade with a jump from 5 per cent of obese children in 2000 to 22 per cent as of 2013.

I am happy to learn that Poland is taking several initiatives to educate children to learn about healthy ways of eating and to seriously tackle obesity issues. In particular, I would like to highlight that the Polish Food and Nutrition Safety Law was amended to take into consideration food and nutrition of children and adolescents in educational institutions.

The Amendment requires that the food used in canteens in the units of the educational system must comply with nutritional standards. This new regulation prohibits usage of salt, sugar and other additives to food in the school lunch menu.

I congratulate the Polish Government as well as the Polish Ombudsman for Children for following through with the recent changes to the law imposing healthy guidelines for food served in school and implementing the regulation in schools. I believe that the new regulation will lead to healthier and better lives for children.

Other initiatives by the Polish Government include the Milk at School Programme and the School Fruit and Vegetable Programme. By providing 0.25 liters of milk and three healthy fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren, the programme aims to change eating habits of children by increasing the share of fruit and vegetables in their everyday diet.

In another programme, the "School Promoting Health” teachers are encouraged to eat together with students to check the lunches that they bring from home and to closely monitory the health diets of students. 

Commercial advertisements for unhealthy food are also a contributing factor to the rise in obesity among children. While as there are no binding legal regulations on the limitation of advertisement for junk food targeted at children, I welcome voluntary initiatives by food producers and media to self-censor advertisements of junk food targeted at children under 13 years of age.

Breastfeeding and baby food

In line with World Health Organization’s recommendation, most women in Poland exclusively breastfeed their infants for the first six months, and there are strict restrictions on the advertisement of baby formulas. 

Despite the generous maternal leave that Polish women enjoy, due to the changes in the working environment, mothers often do not have time to prepare food for their toddlers and rely on commercial baby food. While the Polish law prohibits advertisement of milk formula, the same prohibitions and regulations for baby food is not yet in place. I encourage the Polish legislators to put in place regulations to carefully monitor baby food and food for infants after six months.

I would like to stress that the dietary habits of individuals begin as early as when a baby is born. In addition to nutrition levels, the formula of baby milk and baby food in the market may have impact on the future dietary habits of the child which can lead to possible health problems.

Food waste

According to the Eurostat data in 2006, Poland wasted nearly 9 million tons of food.

Production is responsible for wasting nearly 6.6 million tons of food waste, households more than 2 million tons, while other sources are 0.35 million tons. This shows that a large proportion of food waste is generated by the food industry.

In response to this phenomenon, food banks in Poland have taken several initiatives. Foods banks have signed agreements with retail chains such as Tesco Poland, Makro, Selgros, Auchan and Carrefour to transfer food that have short deadlines for human consumption. Nevertheless, cumbersome regulations block some initiatives of NGOs to tackle the food waste and help food-insecure people.  

Asylum seekers, refugee and inmates

During my visit, I learned about measures taken in relation to food distribution for specific groups. One of the vulnerable groups is the refugees and asylum seekers in Poland. The United Nations high Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) estimates that at the end of 2014 their number was around 15,741 for refugees, 2,470 asylum seekers and 10,825 stateless persons.  Poland hosts 11 reception centers for asylum seekers, which are located far from residential areas. Some reception centers are equipped with kitchens and asylum seekers are able to cook their own food in which case, allowance money – 340 zlotys – is provided per person.

Another group is inmates in State prison who are guaranteed their right to proper food in accordance to the Criminal Code of Poland, as well as international standards. After the European Court of Human Rights decision (Jakobski v Poland, December 2010) about the refusal of culturally acceptable food for an inmate, changes have been introduced and currently inmates are served with culturally compliant food such as food for Muslims, Buddhists and vegetarians. Furthermore, for inmates carrying out heavy physical work and in severe weather conditions, additional meals are served daily. Nevertheless, there have been some complaints about the quantity of food.

Climate change and the environment

It is established that climate change impacts agriculture in various ways. For instance, the changes in temperature, humidity, precipitation, and others will increase the risk of food insecurity and adversely affect the quality of food as well as fresh water availability.

Poland is prone to weather phenomena, such as drought and hurricane-force storms and is vulnerable to significant fluctuations. Poland has in place several adaptation policies in accordance with EU standards such as the climate change insurance and policy which earmarks funds to be spend in the rural area for issues related to climate change. I would like to stress that a balance must be struck between climate change policies and agricultural policies, in a sustainable manner and that mitigation strategies should be in place.

Furthermore, water pollution and soil pollution as a result of unmonitored or poor monitored usage of excessive spray of pesticides in one agricultural sector can have impact on other sectors.


While much more could be said on a range of issues, including commending positive Government policies and programmes, let me finish with some preliminary remarks that will be addressed in more detail in the report.

In order to further strengthen the protection of the right to food, I would encourage Poland to:

  • Ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child as suggested by the Ombudsman of Children rights. The ratification of the Optional Protocols would enable access to effective remedy for groups, individuals and children providing opportunity to bring cases to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
  • Establish a stronger legislative framework and coordinating institutional body to protect the right to access to nutritious food and ensure adequate support for small holders and family farming;
  • UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)’s voluntary guidelines should be implemented for domestic agricultural policy making activities, specifically the “Voluntary Guidelines to support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security”; “Voluntary Guidelines of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security”; and “Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems”;
  • Implement new Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, especially Goal Number. 2: “ to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”;
  • Eliminate some of the regulations that block smallholder farmers and producers to enter local markets;
  • Collect disaggregated data to monitor the situation of all vulnerable groups;
  • Further support food production cooperatives to compete with big producers;
  • Support women farmers with additional incentives and access to credit, and other agricultural resources;
  • Implement and monitor environmental regulations that protects soil degradation and water pollution from excessive farming especially live-stock;  and
  • Extend the ban on Genetically Modified Organism seeds from selling to using them.