Factory farming takes Eastern Europe

Millions of Euros in subsidies are changing the agricultural landscape of Eastern Europe, rendering small farms no longer “economic” in contrast to the new highly-subsidized branch-plant animal factories of global operators like Smithfield. If the name Smithfield sounds familiar, it could have something to do with one of their mega-scale hog operations in Mexico which has lately been in the news in connection with the disease formerly known as swine flu. Of course no connection was proven. So it’s still business as usual.

According to this latest report on the export of pig factories to Eastern Europe, economic fallout is being felt as far away as Ivory Coast in Africa, where small growers are unable to compete with low prices made possible by Smithfield’s modus operandi. This story is by Doreen Carvajal and Stephen Castle. It was published May 5, 2009 in the NY Times.

Separate subsidies mined by Smithfield helped support the export of cheap pork scraps from Poland to Africa, where some hog farmers also are giving up their farms, saying they are unable to compete with Smithfield. At left, Donald Yao, 32, cleaned a stall on his pig farm in Cote dIvoire. Yaos farm has been struggling to survive for the past few years due to the growing market of frozen pig parts being imported from Europe by agriculture firms like Smithfield. NY Times photo by Jane Hahn.

Separate subsidies mined by Smithfield helped support the export of cheap pork scraps from Poland to Africa, where some hog farmers also are giving up their farms, saying they are unable to compete with Smithfield. At left, Donald Yao, 32, cleaned a stall on his pig farm in Cote d'Ivoire. Yao's farm has been struggling to survive for the past few years due to the growing market of frozen pig parts being imported from Europe by agriculture firms like Smithfield. NY Times photo by Jane Hahn.

“CENEI, ROMANIA — For centuries — from the Hapsburg Empire through Communist dictatorship — peasant farmers here have eked a living from hogs, driving horses along ancient pocked roads and whispering ritual prayers on butchering day.

Old customs and jobs are dying and the air itself is changing, however, transformed by an American newcomer, Smithfield Foods. Almost unnoticed by the rest of the Continent, the agribusiness giant has moved into Eastern Europe with the force of a factory engine, assembling networks of farms, breeding pigs on the fast track, and slaughtering them for every bit of meat and muscle that can be squeezed into a sausage.

The upheaval in the hog farm belts of Poland and Romania, the two largest E.U. members in Eastern Europe, ranks among the Continent’s biggest agricultural transformations.

It also offers a window on how a Fortune 500 company based in Virginia operates in far-flung outposts. Smithfield has a joint venture in a Mexican hog farm located near where United Nations scientists are investigating a potential link between pigs and the new strain of influenza in humans. With the exact origins of the virus still in doubt, Smithfield emphasizes that the disease has struck none of its hogs or employees.

But Smithfield’s global approach is clear; its chairman, Joseph Luter III, has described it as moving in a “very, very big way, very, very fast.” In less than five years, Smithfield enlisted politicians in Poland and Romania, tapped into hefty European Union farm subsidies and fended off local opposition groups to create a conglomerate of feed mills, slaughterhouses and climate-controlled barns housing thousands of hogs.

It moved with such speed that sometimes it failed to secure environmental permits or inform the authorities about pig deaths — lapses that emerged after swine fever swept through three Romanian hog compounds in 2007, two of which were operating without permits. Some 67,000 hogs died or were destroyed, with infected and healthy pigs shot to stanch the spread.

In the United States, Smithfield says it has been a boon to consumers. Pork prices dropped by about one-fifth between 1970 and 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, suggesting annual savings of about $29 per consumer.

In Eastern Europe, as in American farm states where Smithfield developed its business strategy, the question is whether the savings are worth the considerable costs. The company says it is “sensitive to our neighbors’ concerns” and that complaints are often from disgruntled residents left behind.

But Robert Wallace, a visiting professor of geography at the University of Minnesota says Smithfield’s global rise is part of a broader “livestock revolution that has created cities of pigs and chickens” in poorer nations with weaker regulations. “The price tag goes up for small farmers.”

In Romania, the number of hog farmers has declined 90 percent — to 52,100 in 2007 from 477,030 in 2003 — according to European Union statistics, with ex-farmers, overwhelmed by Smithfield’s lower prices, often emigrating or shifting to construction. In their place, the company employs or contracts with about 900 people and buys grain from about 100 farmers.

In Poland, there were 1.1 million hog farmers in 1996. That number fell 56 percent by 2008, as the advent of modern farming methods transformed agriculture, according to the Polish National Agricultural Chamber.

Two years ago, Daniel Neag housed 300 pigs in the empty stalls of his windswept farm near Lugoj, in Romania. Since 2005, membership in his breeder association plunged to 42 from 300. The secretary treasurer tends honeybees.

The impact on the environment is even more marked. With almost 40 farms in western Romania, Smithfield has built enormous metal manure containers to inject waste into the soil. “We go crazy with the daily smell,” said Aura Danielescu, the principal of a school in Masloc, who closes her windows tight…”

Read the other three pages of this story on the NY Times website and see the other 8 pictures. (May require signing up for a free account)

Read this related post on the impact of factory farming on the Polish countryside.

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7 responses to “Factory farming takes Eastern Europe

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