ISIS Report 29/05/08
The Battle to Save the Polish Countryside
Julian Rose exposes the scandal
of EU’s deliberate policy to get rid of family farms
for the benefit of the corporations and gives a personal account of his battle
with the GMO dragon that threatens to devastate rural Poland
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Poland ’s peasant farmers are the true trustees of its countryside
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,”
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
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 EU
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.
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
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
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.
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
Poland has all the potential for
a full blown peasant revolt to recapture the right to grow, eat and
trade their superb farmhouse foods; thus freeing themselves from the bureaucratically
perverse sanitary and hygiene regulations imposed upon them. With one and
a half million largely subsistence-based small family farms still in operation,
it is something we should not rule out. But perhaps
the strongest force militating against such an action is the fact that a fair
proportion of farmers have already signed up to the ‘pot of gold’ held tantalisingly
in front of their noses by the Brussels bureaucrats; that ultimately delivers
just a few crumbs of financial support to farms of five to seven hectares,
but rewards large farms with substantial offerings.
Money can indeed buy-out the seeds of revolution, but the heart of the peasants
will not be appeased; neither will the hearts of caring individuals who know
and love the working countryside. In a world where genuine independence is seen
as a threat to the controlling influence of transnational and national power
brokers, a watchful eye will be kept on any potentially rebellious leaders,
and covert efforts made to ensure that placidity reigns supreme. But they will
be up against a poisoned and polluted nature in rebellion, and those waking
up to the stark choices that confront all of us: capitulate to the forces of
‘total control’ or wrest back control of life and work to rejuvenate your local
communities to do the same.
is well-versed in the art of survival. Provided the next generation of farm
owners has the will to carry forward the traditions inherited along with the
land, there is great hope for this proud and brave nation to come through the chaos
with its soul and seed unspoilt.
This is an edited version of an article in the latest edition of Quarterly Review, a UK-based journal
devoted to ideas and culture drawing upon penetrating socio-political insights.
Julian Rose is president of the ICPPC. Current activities of the Coalition
* Raising the Social Status of Farmers Using Work Horses - a Malopolska-based
project highlighted by rising oil prices and the need to mitigate
global warming by reducing CO2 emissions.
* Save Poland's
Seeds - an awareness-raising campaign among farmers and gardeners to
protect the indigenous seed base at a time of increasing corporate piracy,
modification and ownership of native seeds.
* Opening ICPPC’s eco-centre (at ICPPC’s HQ)
for educational visits by schools in order to demonstrate the
effectiveness of renewable energy technologies
and ecological farming.
* Monthly lecture/workshop series, “Taking Back Control of Our Lives”