Science in Society Archive

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

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,” 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 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.

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

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.

Poland 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 include:

* 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”

Article first published 29/05/08

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a duck?