“Clearance” of Polish peasant farmers makes way for the Smithfields of this world — will E.U.-style methods be coming soon to a country near you?

During the clearances of the 18th and 19th century vast numbers of small tenant farmers were kicked off the land in Scotland and sent packing to the cities where they had little choice but to seek work in factories or emigrate to the new world. Meanwhile their former lands were amalgamated and used for large-scale sheep herding.

Helena Master milks a cow on a farm in Stryszow, Poland. Photo: Rafal Klimkiewicz for The New York Times

Helena Master milks a cow in Stryszow, Poland. Photo: Rafal Klimkiewicz for The New York Times


It seems that the gesture of “the clearances” is echoed in recent efforts in Poland to get rid of small peasant farmers and “rationalize” agriculture into large monoculture enterprises. We bring you excerpts from a recent report from Julien Rose which takes a close look at recent events on the Polish agricultural scene. This report is from the Institute for Science in Society website where it is titled “The Battle to Save the Polish Countryside“. The Polish situation is particularly interesting in that many Poles seem to have a good grasp of just what is at stake in this particular battle and Poland, as a nation, has a long history of warding off would-be tyrannies.

But first, lets have a look at this April 2008 story from the New York Times “Old Ways, New Pain for farms in Poland“, by Elizabeth Rosenthal:

“STRYSZOW, Poland —Depending on your point of view, Szczepan Master is either an incorrigible Luddite or a visionary. A small farmer, proud of his pure high-quality products, he works his land the way Polish farmers have for centuries.

He keeps his livestock in a straw-floored “barn” that is part of his house, entered through a kitchen door. He slaughters his own pigs. His wife milks cows by hand. He rejects genetically modified seeds. Instead of spraying his crops, he turns his fields in winter, preferring a workhorse to a tractor, to let the frost kill off pests residing there.

While traditional farms like his could be dismissed as a nostalgic throwback, they are also increasingly seen as the future — if only they can survive.

Mr. Master’s way of farming — indeed his way of life — has been badly threatened in the two years since Poland joined the European Union, a victim of sanitary laws and mandates to encourage efficiency and competition that favor mechanized commercial farms, farmers here say.

That conflict obviously matters to Mr. Master. But it is also of broader importance, environmental groups and agriculture experts say, as worries over climate change grow and more consumers in both Europe and the United States line up for locally grown, organic produce.

For reasons social, culinary and environmental, small farms like Mr. Master’s should be promoted, or at least be protected, they say. They not only yield tastier foods but also produce few of the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

In part because Poland has remained one of the last strongholds of small farming in Europe, it is also a rare bastion of biodiversity, with 40,000 pairs of nesting storks and thousands of seed varieties that exist nowhere else in the world.

But European Union laws are intended for another universe of farming, and Polish farmers say they have left them at a steep disadvantage. If they want to sell their products, European law requires farms to have concrete floors in their barns and special equipment for slaughtering. Hygiene laws prohibit milking cows by hand. As a result, the milk collection stations and tiny slaughterhouses that until a few years ago dotted the Polish countryside have all closed. Small family farming is impossible.

“We need to reward them for being ahead of the game, rather than behind it,” said Sir Julian Rose — an organic farmer from Britain — who, with his Polish partner, Jadwiga Lopata, founded the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside some years back and has been fighting the regulations.

“The E.U. has adopted the same efficiency approach to food as it has to autos and microchips,” he said. “Those who can produce the most are favored. Everything is happening the reverse of what it should be if they care about food and the environment.”

The small farmers who have rallied behind the coalition here in southern Poland have touched a deep nerve and gained broad influence.

Ms. Lopata received the prestigious Goldman Prize for protecting the environment for her quest to preserve traditional farms. Prince Charles visited her farm (by helicopter) with its solar panels and the black sheep (responsible for mowing the grass) in the yard.

All 16 states of Poland have now banned genetically modified organisms in defiance of European Union and Word Trade Organization mandates. Last month, the Polish Agriculture Ministry announced that it planned to ban their import in animal fodder, another refusal to accept European Union policy….”

“…The average farm size is about 17 acres, compared with about 59 acres in Spain, France and Germany. There are 1.5 million small farms in Poland. Only Italy, with its proliferation of high-end niche agricultural products,compares to Poland in its abundance of small producers.

But the fall of Communism and, more recently, European Union membership have opened this once cloistered land to global forces: international competition, sanitary codes, trade rules and the like. Sir Julian recalls that at an agricultural conference in 1999 a pamphlet advertised “Poland up for grabs!” That is what has happened, he said.

In a market newly saturated with huge efficient players, these small traditional farmers are being overwhelmed. The American bacon producer Smithfield Farms now operates a dozen vast industrial pig farms in Poland. Importing cheap soy feed from South America, which the company feeds to its tens of thousands of pigs, it has caused the price of pork to drop strikingly in the past couple of years. Since European Union membership, the prices of pork and milk have dropped 30 percent.

In early March, hundreds of Polish farmers demonstrated outside the office of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, complaining that they were losing money on each hog they raised. Anyway, Mr. Master said, raising pigs for sale was a nonstarter. He is forbidden to slaughter his own pigs, and the nearest abattoir that meets European Union standards is hours away; there are only five in all of Poland.

“It is impossible for me to farm,” he lamented over beet soup, in his ragged sweater and black work pants. He and his wife know that the European Union offers subsidies and loans to modernize traditional farms. But, they say, it is not enough money, it is not what they want and they are not adept at navigating the bureaucracy. They tried to fill out the paperwork to get certified as an organic farm but found it overwhelming.

Poland has a tradition of small farming that has persisted for centuries. Unlike farmers in the rest of Eastern Europe, Poland’s farmers even resisted collectivization under Communism. Now, Ms. Lopata said, they are “organic by default,” and “at the vanguard of an ecological, healthy way of food producing.”

In a small barn covered with matted straw, Barbara and Andrzej Wojcik say they feel like outcasts. They used to make a decent living selling pork from pigs they raised as well as the milk and butter from their six cows.

But they said that with the price of pork so low they could not afford to raise pigs slowly, the traditional way. As for milk, their local collection station closed a few years ago. So they have no way to get their products to market, even if they buy the required stainless steel equipment.

Now they have sold all but two of their cows and reverted to subsistence farming. They live off their parents’ pensions, barter and a bit of money selling sewed crafts. “The new laws are killing us,” Ms. Wojcik said.

Mr. Mann, from the European Commission, acknowledges that small farmers in places like Poland may have to adapt. “There is a place for the small farmer,” he said, “but they have to be smart and not rely on payouts.”

But deft adaptation seems hard here, a place set in its ways — and may be bad for the environment anyway. A collective system for selling organic vegetables to the city, devised by Ms. Lopata, never got off the ground.

“They tend to be very individualistic,” she said. “They think they survived Communist efforts to collectivize them, so they will survive this. They don’t realize the European Union and the global market are even harder.”

Find the whole New York Times story here (may require signing up for a free account).

Now here’s that excerpt from the ISIS website:

“Poland is accustomed to fighting rearguard actions to throw off unwelcome invaders. Throughout the 19th century period of “The Partitians” – occupation by Russia and then Austria – the Poles kept in their hearts a longing for a day when they could be freed from the yoke of repression and find genuine independence. After finally succeeding in 1918 to rid themselves of the invaders, they were soon engulfed in conflict again, this time with the invading Nazi Germany. They responded with the 1939-45 resistance movement that sprouted up in the fields, small towns and main cities.

As many will know, the Poles fought alongside the British throughout the Second World War – a time when Poland’s government in exile had its head quarters in London. I remember quite well when I was a boy a Polish exile who lived in our village (Whitchurch-on-Thames) coming regularly to my family home and diligently cleaning the chimneys. He spoke little, but did a very thorough job.

It was only in 1989 that Poland finally threw off the last repressive regime of occupation in their land, the Russian communists. So, the last nineteen years of freedom have been been the longest historical period of non-occupation in a very long time.

The Nobel prize winning author Thomas Mann, who fled Nazi Germany before World War Two, was reported to have remarked just before his death in 1969 that although the Nazis had been defeated, he feared that fascism had not: “I am concerned about the weak position of freedom in post world war Europe and North America,” he said.

We can surely identify with his concern. ‘The weak position of freedom’ is evident throughout our increasingly pacified Orwellian society, and has recently come to undermine the long standing traditions of the Polish countryside, particularly the independence of the peasant and family farms, and the huge biodiversity of the Polish countryside of which they are the prime trustees.

The communists failed to quell the small Polish peasant farmers into submission during their period of occupation, which left the Country with a rich, if rather confusing, legacy of approximately one and a half million small scale family farms (average size 18 acres) dotted around the Polish Provinces, but particularly prevalent in the south and east.

The European Union is simply not interested in small farms

When I was first invited in November 2000 by Jadwiga Lopata, founder of The International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside, to come to Poland as a co-director of this newly established non governmental organisation, the Country was preparing itself, or more correctly, being prepared for entry into the European Union. Opinions were strongly divided concerning the merits of such an action and those most against included the farmers.

One of our first tasks, as I saw it, was to warn the Poles just what ‘joining the EU’ would mean for the farming population, for rural communities and for the renowned biodiversity of the countryside.

Through the auspices of a senior civil servant in Warsaw, Jadwiga and I were able to address a meeting with the Brussels-based committee responsible for negotiating Poland’s agricultural terms of entry into the EU. It proved to be an ominous foretaste of things to come.

The first thing that struck us was the fact that out of the twelve people sitting in the room at the European Commission, not one was Polish. I explained to the attendant body that in a Country where 22 percent of the working population are involved in agriculture, and the majority on small farms, it would not be a good idea to follow the same regime as had been operated in the UK and other EU member countries, in which ‘restructuring’ agriculture had involved throwing the best farmers off the land and amalgamating their farms into large scale monocultural operations designed to supply the predatory supermarket chains. You could have heard a pin drop.

After clearing her throat and leaning slowly forward, the chair-lady said: “I don’t think you understand what EU policy is. Our objective is to ensure that farmers receive the same salary parity as white collar workers in the cities. The only way to achieve this is by restructuring and modernising old fashioned Polish farms to enable them to compete with other countries agricultural economies and the global market. To do this it will be necessary to shift around one million farmers off the land and encourage them to take city and service industry jobs to improve their economic position. The remaining farms will be made competitive with their counterparts in western Europe.”

There in a nutshell you have the whole tragic story of the clinically instigated demise of European farming over the past three decades. We protested that with unemployment running at 20 percent how would one provide jobs for another million farmers dumped on the streets of Warsaw? This was greeted with a stony silence, eventually broken by a lady from Portugal, who rather quietly remarked that since Portugal joined the European Union, 60 percent of small farmers had already left the land. “The European Union is simply not interested in small farms,” she said.

What happens when a nation joins the E.U.?

A month or so later, we were invited to the Polish parliament to address the government’s agricultural committee. I gave a speech entitled, “Don’t Follow Us”, in which I explicitly warned of the fate in store for the Polish countryside if Poland joined the EU. I gave some vivid examples of what had happened in the UK over the past two decades: the ripping up of 35 000 miles of hedge rows; the loss of 30 percent of native farmland bird species; 98 percent of species-rich hay meadows, thousands of tonnes of wind and water eroded top-soil, and around fifteen thousand farmers driven off the land every year, accompanied by a rapid decline in the quality of food.

That night, Respospolita, a leading national broadsheet, carried a portion of this speech under the intended heading “Don’t Follow Us”. The piece appeared in exactly half the editions, in the other half was an article praising the merits of Poland joining the EU. That was in the autumn of 2001.

Poland joined the EU in 2004 after an intense publicity campaign calling on Poles to “Say Yes to the EU!” The propaganda machine went into overdrive with brash promises of “pots of gold” being showered on Poland and farmers being offered generous agricultural subsidies and free advice, provided they played by the rules of the game…

That ’game’ was all too familiar to me. Spend hours out of your working day filling in endless forms, filing maps and measuring every last inch of your fields, tracks and farmsteads; applying for ‘passports’ for your cattle and ear tags for your sheep and pigs; re-siting the slurry pit and putting stainless steel and washable tiles on the dairy walls; becoming versed in HASAP hygiene and sanitary rules and applying them where any food processing was to take place; and living under the threat of convictions and fines should one put a finger out of place or be late in supplying some official details

Losing out to corporate serfdom

Throughout this time, I clearly remember the sense of losing something intangible beyond recall; losing something more valuable than that which was gained on the eventual arrival of the subsidy cheque.

What we were losing was our independence and our freedom; the slow rural way of life shared by traditional farming communities throughout the world. You cannot put a price on this immeasurably important quality. It is a deep, lasting and genuinely civilised expression of life.

So now the Poles, with their two million family farms (half a million of them bigger than the small family farms mentioned earlier), were going to be subjected to the same fate, and Jadwiga and I felt desperate to try and avert this tragedy.  An uphill struggle ensued, which involved swimming strongly against the tide and risking the wrath of the agribusiness and seed corporations who were gleefully moving-in behind the EU free trade agreements while a bought-out government stood aside.

What these corporations want (I use the present tense as the position remains the same to-day) is to get their hands on Poland’s relatively unspoiled work force and land resources. They want to establish themselves on Polish soil, acquire their capital cheaply and flog the end products of Polish labour to the rest of the world for a big profit.<

Farmers, however, stand in the way of land acquisitions; so they are best removed. Corporations thus join with the EU in seeing through their common goals and set about intensively lobbying national government to get the right regulatory conditions to make their kill.

Farmers, once having fallen for the CAP subsidy carrot, suddenly find themselves heavily controlled by EU and national officialdom brandishing that most vicious of anti-entrepreneurial weapons: ‘sanitary and hygiene regulations’ – as enforced by national governments at the behest of the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union. These are the hidden weapons of mass destruction of farmers and the main tool for achieving the CAP’s aim of ridding the countryside of small- and medium-sized family farms and replacing them with monocultural money-making agribusiness.

Already by 2005, 65 percent of regional milk and meat processing factories had been forced to close because they ‘failed’ (read couldn’t afford) to implement the prescribed sanitary standards. Some 70 percent of small slaughter houses have also suffered the same fate. Farmers increasingly have nowhere to go to sell their cattle, sheep, pigs and milk. Exactly as has happened to UK farmers, Polish farmers are now being forced out of business by the covert and overt destruction of the infrastructure which supports their profession. The rural economy thus implodes and farming communities are scattered to the wind. All that emerges on the green fields they have left behind are Tesco superstores and other hypermarket clones.

The European Union’s CAP and sanitary and hygiene weapons have been re-honed to slash their way through Romanian family farms –  whose extraordinary diversity and peasant farming skills rival Poland’s – and Turkey is next in line.

The so-called global food economy is in reality the instrument of a relatively small number of very wealthy transnational corporations. It is a small club that nevertheless harbours very big ambitions. One of its members is Monsanto (USA), whose recent marriage with the Cargill corporation makes it the biggest seed and agrichemical merchant in the world. Poland has been on the radar screen of Monsanto corporation as well as fellow seed operatives Dupont, Pioneer and Syngenta for some time now. However, in 2004, the same year that Poland joined the EU, Monsanto started a major lobbying drive on senior figures in the Polish government for a relaxation of national GMO precautionary laws and a government commitment to supporting the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as a symbol of the modernisation of traditional Polish farming.

GMO-free Poland

Poles demonstrate opposition to GMOs

Poles demonstrate opposition to GMOs

We at ICPPC got wind of these developments and decided to devote our meagre, overstretched resources into fighting this new and immensely threatening dragon. Thus began an amazing campaign that, over the space of a year and a half, managed to help galvanise the boards of every province in Poland (there are 16) to declare themselves a ‘GMO Free Zone’, so that by September 2005 the whole country could declare itself ‘GMO Free’.

The chair of each province wrote to the prime minister demanding national legislation to recognise their new status by law. At first nothing happened, but then, much to everyone’s surprise – and Monsanto’s fury – Jaroslaw Kaczynski (the then prime minister) announced that legislation would be passed to ban the import and sale of GMO seeds and plants in Poland. This was followed a little later by a similar announcement declaring that GM animal feed would also be banned as of 2008.<

Europe and the rest of the world were amazed. Seemingly out of nowhere, a country passed national legislation to ban GM seeds and animal feeds, an illegal act in the eyes of the European Commission. Only Greece and Austria had come close to achieving such a ban. It seemed that Poland was to make history and perhaps lead the rest of Europe towards a new moratorium, if not outright ban, of GMO. But this fairy tale ending is yet to be.

Back at the ranch, bemused Polish farmers could hardly grasp the significance of this event, already deeply perplexed by the strange new world of western capitalism and shell shocked by the complexities and apparent two-facedness of the CAP, and the need to absorb the seemingly unfathomable ‘science’ and propaganda surrounding GMO.

Aware of this dangerously exploitable situation, we embarked on a countrywide awareness-raising campaign armed with the documentary film against GMO, Life Running out of Control, dubbed into Polish, and recorded onto CD.

We ran into considerable flack, especially wherever university professors of agriculture were invited to lead public debates. Often, on such occasions, Jadwiga and I were the only voices critical of GMO up against half a dozen professors armed with power point presentations and lecturing straight from the Monsanto manual. However, the distinctly intuitive Polish public nearly always came down on our side, offering much needed encouragement. It was an important tour in which we addressed some thirty different meetings in village halls, clubs, farmers institutions and Council offices.

Newspapers, television and to a lesser extent radio, were, and remain, pretty much gagged from reporting the truth. As we discovered, much of the Polish media is in foreign hands or largely held by outside interests. The GMO lobby had already won over the main Polish farmers union, and the new government, under Donald Tusk, kept an increasingly silent position on the future of the anti GMO legislation enacted by his predecessor Kaczynski.

Kaczynski’s team had already appeared to stall when confronted by the dual threat of a fine from the European Commission for instituting an ‘illegal’ blanket ban on GMO (under EU law no country is allowed to overstep ‘free trade’ dictats by outright banning of GMO) and the huge corporate backlash resulting from the ban.

Now that a new government with a distinctly modernising agenda was in charge, we were forced to work even harder in order to keep the anti GMO momentum alive. Faced by this denouement, we decided to help create a new national organisation: ‘The Coalition for a GMO Free Poland’ and to draw upon as wide a cross section of society as possible to promote its aims. There are now 180 organisations and key individuals on the books and we have made some headway with the wary media.

Among those who have joined up are colleagues fighting another predatory US invader, Smithfield, the giant pig factory farming multinational (UK subsidiary Danish Crown, East Anglia) which moved onto Polish soil (or should I say concrete) in the late 1990s and, with a strong link to Monsanto’s North American GM soya export trade, established their perverse animal factories with the aid of a cheap Polish work force and corrupt government officials. The thousands of GM-soya fattened pigs that now flood the market have helped to undercut the prices and destroy the livelihood of many hundreds of already hard pressed traditional pig farmers throughout Poland and far beyond.

Smithfield and other industrial farming units operating out of Poland don’t like the idea of a GM animal feed ban (due to come into force this year) and have used the current high price of conventional animal feeds to put pressure on the government to postpone the ban to 2009 or beyond. A great opportunity will be lost if this postponement is agreed, and it will be harder to ensure that companies such as Smithfield can be prevented from further exploiting the market place’s demand for cheap pork.

How ironic it is that the hell bent US development of biofuels has played into the hands of the proponents of cheap GMO feed for meat production by forcing up the price of conventional feeds, such as barley based products, through displacing cereals from millions of acres planted with GM maize to produce fuel for motor-cars and trucks. Now GM soya and maize, previously avoided by most European animal feed importers, suddenly look like the only cheap option available. We have consistently lobbied for government to encourage farmers to grow their own traditional feed products, but in a world hooked on the global trade of cheap proteins, such advice has fallen on deaf ears.

The next Polish peasant uprising

Read the rest of this story on the ISIS website.


Filed under News

2 responses to ““Clearance” of Polish peasant farmers makes way for the Smithfields of this world — will E.U.-style methods be coming soon to a country near you?

  1. Pingback: Factory farming takes Eastern Europe « The Bovine

  2. Dear Bovine
    I came across your site doing some research about the CAP. This is a very interesting and disturbing article. I was in Brussels a couple of weeks ago for an event organized by some MEPs who are against this big industrialized farming and trying to revise the CAP this summer, and screened the film “Pig Business” by Tracy Worcester who also was a main speaker. Have you seen it? I know her from the UK and have interviewd her.
    It’s a difficult situation because at this stage, EU regulations (in the form of animal welfare standards) are the only chance of fighting OFF parasites like Smithfield. I was not aware that CAP was openly anti-small farm, that certainly is not being admitted to these days. Check out this organization: http://www.cognitivepolicyworks.com/ I think these guys are really smart. Check out the writings by Joe Brewer on “re-framing” and food security. Could be a good connection for you. Best wishes from the UK – we just succesfully fought off a mega-dairy!

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