"The ministerial agenda is very diverse, which is why I am trying to fully utilize not just my own professional team but the ministry staff as well, all of whom I appreciate greatly," says Marek Výborný who was appointed minister of agriculture this year.
Were you hesitant when you received the offer to lead the Ministry of Agriculture? Is this a field you took an interest in previously?
I know the agricultural environment; as an MP, I traveled around my region of Pardubice and also others. I often visited agricultural and food processing facilities as well as family farms. The countryside has always been front and center in KDU-ČSL's policymaking, and I have been a long-term proponent of the need for a minister to be a manager first and foremost. I don't know a single person who understands everything, meaning plant production, animal production, water, forests, fishing, agricultural subsidy policy, and the complex legal processes behind land consolidation. I came to a ministry that is structured, where everyone knows what to do and respects the direction set by the government's policy statement.
Was taking over a swift process?
I did hear a couple of skeptical remarks regarding my qualifications for the position. I must say, however, that I quickly got accustomed to how the department works and I've had very open and sincere communication with farmers as well as other groups. I won't hide the fact that I still need to "get a feel" for a lot of things, but when I do something, I strive to do it to the best of my ability. As a "non-lawyer" I got matters related to distraint processes moving and rolled out the Merciful Summer program together with my team, and I am working just as hard on farming, forestry, and water management. The department is fascinating in its breadth, beautiful in a sense, and complex at the same time due to the varied interests that often aren't quite aligned, which naturally results in conflict. That makes my role, which is that of a moderator to a certain extent, quite difficult. Just look at the discussion around food prices and whose fault that is...
And whose fault is it? Our food is some of the most expensive in the EU; a lot of people go to Poland or even Germany to shop for groceries.
Numbers from the Czech Statistical Office show that the prices of a significant number of food items in stores are falling. The reason is an exceptional harvest as well as the pressure I've helped exert on supermarket chains. I don't mean to boast; what I'm trying to say is that no merchant wants to be called unfair and labeled as the one responsible for exorbitant prices. I cannot set the price of milk, pastry, or butter as a minister. What I can do, however, is use my unofficial influence. I meet with representatives of the private sector, food processing companies, and supermarket chains. If you're a proponent of equal treatment, that's the only way to get positive results.
What plagues Czech farmers the most?
Currently, it's things such as the decreasing farm gate value of milk. We've been seeing this trend since last December, which is when the farm gate value of raw cow milk was 13.9 crowns per liter; it dropped to less than 10 crowns late this August. It has been lower than the production cost for several months now because farmers are able to produce a liter of milk for roughly 11 crowns. We must not forget that the production of milk is also quite labor-intensive. The sector is further dealing with the impact of inflation and rising production input prices. That is why I negotiated with the government to provide additional support for Czech farmers in the amount of 80 million crowns, which is on top of the more than 163 million crowns we've managed to secure from European Union funds. So, they will end up getting an extra 243 million crowns. We'll be supporting not only dairy farmers but also fruit, produce, and hops growers. The intent behind this measure is to prevent any further exacerbation of the situation in these sectors as they are facing the biggest headwinds. But one thing plaguing farmers enormously across the board is the huge extent of bureaucracy and paperwork. This is a point I must cede to them and it's one of the tasks I've set for myself and I'm hard at work on. Simplifying application forms, making use of digitalization, making sure inspections are less frequent and more reasonable, etc.
What are your other priorities?
Forest renewal, for instance. We absolutely must keep planting trees following the bark beetle calamity. I'm pleased that 50 thousand hectares were planted with trees last year, which is an area of land larger than Prague. My fellow party member Petr Hladík from the Ministry of Environment and I have been successfully cooperating on topics concerning both of our departments. Forests and land need to play not only an environmental role but also an economic and social one. Besides that, I could mention solar panels, which farmers will be installing on the roofs of agricultural buildings to lower energy expenses and become more self-sufficient in terms of power.
"Czechia should ban the import of certain crops from Ukraine, similar to Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary," stated the President of the Agricultural Chamber Jan Doležal recently. What is the deal with Ukrainian wheat, for instance?
Protecting the health of Czech citizens is my number one priority, which is why we are conducting inspections and disposing of entire shipments in case we find positive results. I must remind you that only a very small volume of wheat from Ukraine is imported into Czechia. One-sided bans imposed by individual countries won't solve anything. We need to agree on an EU-wide set of rules to govern the import of Ukrainian agricultural commodities into European ports to ensure that the goods are further transported into countries outside of the Union dependent on Ukrainian production. Making solidarity corridors work is key. At the Visegrád Group meeting in September, we agreed with our counterparts that we would urge the European Commission to consider implementing refundable deposits for distributors transporting grain from Ukraine. If, once their trade is concluded, they are able to prove that the grain ended up in the country it was meant for and left Europe through Baltic or Polish ports, they will get their money back. The distributors are key in this process because they're the ones who decide where the goods end up.
You often talk about sustainable agriculture. What does it mean in practice?
Sustainable agriculture is a system that prevents the deterioration of arable land while also helping regenerate damaged land. It aims to maintain a sustained land cover, increase biodiversity, and facilitate natural biological processes. All of that is done with the help of modern technologies. Precision agriculture, farming 4.0, and automation are all pivotal topics for the future of our sector. One practical implementation is targeted pesticide application or the use of biological, physical, or mechanical methods of protecting plants. In animal production, it means working with stable management systems, digital farming systems, or farming robots. The EU has been trying to make these options even more accessible to farmers by doing things such as funding R&D under the Horizon Europe program and utilizing joint agricultural policy funds. Simply put – we inherited the land from our fathers and grandfathers and we want to hand it down to our children and grandchildren in the same state, undamaged.
Marek Výborný says that one of his priorities is a shift in communication – the concept of a ministry that discusses things with the public, both experts and laymen. "I am a minister who sees communication as fundamental, and it needs to go both ways, of course," he says. "Shortly after I was appointed, I met in an unofficial capacity with all the prominent representatives of the agricultural sector and we created a rule set. I am open to all opinions as evidenced by the fact that not a day goes by when I'm not talking to one non-governmental organization or another. I strive to be as just as possible as a minister. I don't care if the wheat is grown by a small farmer or a major cooperative that owns hundreds of hectares. The important thing is that they all follow the rules. Bad actors don't belong in the system."
Marek Výborný (born July 10, 1976, in Heřmanův Městec) is the minister of agriculture and an MP. He is also a member of the Heřmanův Městec Municipal Assembly, former member of the Pardubice Regional Assembly, and ex-chair of the KDU-ČSL.
He graduated in history and theology from the Palacký University in Olomouc. In 2001, he started teaching history, social studies, and Latin at the Pardubice Grammar School, going on to serve as its headmaster from 2012 to 2018.
Výborný has been a member of the KDU-ČSL since 2005. In 2017, he was elected an MP and later chair of the KDU-ČSL, stepping down after the death of his wife in 2019. Following the 2021 election, he became the chair of the KDU-ČSL parliamentary group.
He likes to ride his bike on the roads and in the nature of the Iron Mountains and the Polabí region. He serves as an acolyte in his home parish of Heřmanův Městec and is an active member of the Czech Christian Academy. He also works as the chair of the Church of St. Bartholomew Musical Summer festival organizing committee. He is a member of the choir Vlastislav and a Scout troop. His father is the ex-minister of defense and Constitutional Court judge Miloslav Výborný.
He cares for three children.