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Poland’s New Invasion

wheel in field

Poland is the last bastion of traditional farming in Europe; tens of millions of acres of productive land are still tilled without chemicals. Canadian ecologists Bacher and Spenser call Poland a “wildflower speckled oasis in the biologically sterile desert of Europe’s farmlands.”

But while Poland remains an oasis, it is an oasis besieged. Poland has sheltered from the ecological havoc beyond its borders — undamned rivers, virgin temperate forests, an intact aquatic ecosystem larger than Belgium, peasant based farming — but is now acutely at risk from an interlocking phalanx of multinational corporations and banks abetted by corrupt officials and EU bureaucrats.

The foreign take-over of Poland’s industry by a corporate-bureaucratic assault is aimed at the 25% of Poles living on farms and in rural villages. The aim of multinational agribusiness is clear. It is to “modernise” Polish agriculture by driving 1.2 million of the nation’s two million farming families off the land and to replace traditional farming with foreign owned agribusiness. With farm prices repressed by subsidised EU and US imports, rural Poland — thousands of tiny farming communities scattered in deep forests and across undulating farmlands — is in profound depression.

In February, I joined American conservationist Tom Garrett, in his fight to stop Smithfield foods, the world’s largest pork production company, from entrenching itself in Poland. Drawing on his experience with Smithfield in the US, he explained that “Everywhere this company has operated, there has been gross environmental degradation from liquefied hog faeces stored in open sewage pits and sprayed on fields. Rivers, lakes and even aquifers are polluted. In North Carolina, where industrial hog farming is particularly intense, the rivers were so polluted that toxic algae called pfiesteria piscicida began to flourish, it killed countless millions of fish and left hundreds of swimmers and boaters with neurological damage and skin lesions that refused to heal. Tourism and coastal fishing were virtually destroyed. In the mean time, communities near hog factory development, wherever it occurs, are burdened with a nauseating stench — whole counties are afflicted. You have to smell it to believe it”.

In Warsaw I accompanied a group of journalists and NGO’s to deliver a letter Tom had drafted to the European bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), signed — among others — by Robert F Kennedy jr., the Sierra Club, America’s largest charity, and Poland’s surging populist politician Andrzej Lepper. Why, the letter asked, had the EBRD, which purports to be “environmentally sensitive” organised a one hundred million dollar loan to Smithfield’s wholly owned Polish subsidiary Animex S.A. to help finance it’s invasion of Poland. The office manager, Irena Grzbowska, an attractive woman with a strong American accent, explained that “EBRD doesn’t have any experts on the project in Poland and it is too expensive to send experts over from head office in London.” She went on to say that if her memory served her correctly, Smithfield had asked to use the money for vertical integration, to raise the pigs they then slaughtered in their abattoirs. She said that the EBRD had insisted its contribution be applied to modernise Animex packing houses and pay off high interest debts. She had no answer to the charge that the EBRD had, in effect, provided “cover” for the two other lenders and helped “legitimise” Smithfield’s operations in Poland.

Our next stop was West Pomerania in Northwest Poland, a region of lakes and forests famous for its parks and animal sanctuaries. Here, the proximity to the German border (and to potential EU markets) has attracted another wholly owned Smithfield subsidiary calling itself, “Prima Farms”. Smithfield Prima has opened a massive drive to buy and convert dozens of large former state farms into intensive pig factories. Marek Kryder, of the Animal Welfare Institute, explained that Smithfield operates behind Polish registered front companies to bypass laws making it illegal for foreigners to purchase former state farms. “The State Farm Property Agency, set up to ‘privatise’ state farms knows exactly what’s going on”. Tom added, ” they’re obviously in on the fraud. So is the governor of the voivodship (province). Smithfield is one of America’s most corruptive and politically virulent corporations. There are former ministers of agriculture and even some currently serving officials on Animex’s board”.

We ignored the “No Entry” sign at a recently opened hog factory, near Szczecinek, West Pomerania, clambered over wire barriers and wrenched open the ventilation shaft of one of three vast concrete and corrugated iron sheds. Inside, five thousand squealing pigs were crammed into small compartments. Outside, effluent from concrete cesspits, though now frozen, had over-flowed to send a small stream into the lake below. In a large plastic bin (empty the previous night) we found 20 dead pigs. Astonishingly, it seems that the entire operation is illegal. Local officials told us that Prima had only been given a permit to renovate a derelict state farm that had housed cattle and sheep on condition it guaranteed 15 jobs. However, no locals were employed. Then fifteen thousand pigs arrived in the dead of night. Villagers only grasped what had happened when the company began dumping liquid faeces on the snow covered fields.

Local people were angry and frightened. But village and township officials told us that the voivodship had taken Prima’s side and they were powerless to defend their community. If we had informed them six months earlier, they told us, they would have refused all permits and prevented Prima from gaining a foothold. Now, they could only ask for help in contesting the company on environmental grounds.

A few miles to the north we visited Prima’s factory farm at Nielep where 30,000 pigs are confined in two storey buildings. A tall man identifying himself as the manager met us at the gate of the compound, removed his surgical mask and demanded that we keep away. He claimed that although there was no bedding for the pigs they were well looked after, and the factory had all the appropriate permits and the required number of employees. However, he refused to say how many pigs were impounded, how many died each day or what mix of chemicals were pumped into them. Admitting that he had been taken to Smithfield installations in North Carolina for training, he even mouthed the standard company line; “Our local and national opponents are selfishly concerned with animal welfare instead of feeding the world.”

Smithfield had no doubt convinced him that they were doing the world a favour by bankrupting millions of Polish farmers and that animal welfare had nothing to do with consumer health and welfare. And of course it was flippant of Kryder to remind him that ” rare species like Lynx and European Bison and 25% of world’s population of white stork’s survival depended on traditional small family farm symbiosis with the natural world.”

In nearby Nielep village, a meeting had been convened for local farmers and authorities to hear Garret describe Smithfield’s record in America. You could hear a pin drop as the audience tried to grasp the impending destruction of their livelihoods and community. With the presentation over, the audience erupted into a fierce and desperate tirade of complaints already suffered. During the communist era, the state farm had employed 44 locals, Smithfield had promised 15 jobs. But Smithfield’s automated plant employed only three and no locals. One old lady explained, “the company had been spreading effluent over snow-covered fields despite the law. People have developed rashes and stomach upsets”, she said. The stench from the effluent caused vomiting, threatening the closure of the local school and the destruction of local businesses like honey making and tourism. To raucous applause, Nielep’s local authority announced, “Smithfield must be kicked out.” Other local authorities are compiling environmental impact assessments, locals are signing petitions and farmers all over Poland are forming blockades, not least to get Smithfield out of Poland.

With Arthur Tyminski, a Polish organic campaigner, I visited one such farmers’ blockade outside Lublin, south of Warsaw, where we heard the same story. Despite the establishment of numerous state farms during communism, 80% of Polish farm land remained in private hands and a quarter of all Poles own and till land. However, since embracing capitalism, giant foreign agribusiness’s have set up in Poland and are destroying farmers’ livelihoods like never before. The leader of the blockade said, “We don’t need more pigs in this country. Overproduction of pork has caused prices to crash and cost the government millions to dispose of excess pigs. Even though we work hard for 16 hours a day, we have no profit. With 19% unemployment, there’s nowhere for farmers to go. With farm profits going to foreign multinationals, there’s nothing left for Poles”.

I compare their plight with that of UK farmers, 200, 000 of whom have left the land since the 1950s and another 50,000 are predicted to leave in the next five years. When Poland joins the EU, unscrupulous supermarkets will fill their shelves with unhealthy Smithfield meat thus continuing to undermine Britain’s farmers and our higher animal welfare standards.

Tyminisk explained how in the mid 1990′s, Foreign (including 60 Tesco stores) owned supermarkets started to dominate food retailing. Together we scoured the shelves of one such massive (6,000 square feet) supermarket in the centre of Lublin to see how many of the products were Polish. Although 90% is from Poland, shelf after self displayed Nestle and Coca-Cola. The few surviving Polish brands are increasingly bought by the same multinationals. Poland is the latest victim, in a global economy where all powerful food giants in their relentless search for ever-cheaper food, pit farmer against farmer across the world.

I met with the director of ICPPC (International Coalition for the Protection of Polish Countryside), Jadwiga Lopata, who runs the small Polish group trying to support small farmers by encouraging local production. To increase farmers’ profits, they are also promoting holidays on Polish organic farms. She explained how throughout communist times every town in Poland had a market where farmers sold a range of chemical free local produce. However, it seems that recently the government has taken steps to repress local farmers markets, in order to clear any competition to supermarkets. A few years ago, Andrzej Lepper, a leading politician, spent the day defending one such market from closure. However, on his return to Warsaw that evening, the police moved in to demolish every stall.

In spite of central government opposition and freezing weather, local farmers still attend one of Lublin’s three markets. “When it isn’t so cold,” one vegetable seller explained, “there are three rows of local food stalls at the market.” She went on to tell us how all of her food was sold fresh from the ground: “If people want it scrubbed and packaged, they must pay more expensive prices in the supermarket”. A man selling grain in small sacks said, “The supermarket is no threat to me as my customers can taste the freshness of my produce.” The manageress of my hotel told me her mother often bought “pig from a local farmer as it was tastier and was less likely to be pumped full of chemicals.”

When banks like the EBRD use EU taxpayers’ money to subsidise companies like Smithfield, small farmers will disappear, food quality will deteriorate, animals will suffer. And Poland, like the rest of the brave new globe, can bury an ancient life based on community living, family and land stewardship for the benefit of future generations. Garret lamented, “There is no salvation to be found in industrial agriculture owned and controlled by foreign multinational corporations. There is only damage.” Never in all it’s blood soaked history has Poland faced an invasion more dangerous than that descending on it today.

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