The Battle to Save the Polish Countryside

Poland is a country that is accustomed to fighting rearguard actions to free itself from unwelcome invaders. Throughout what is known as “the partitions,” an 18th and 19th century period of occupation by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, 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 unloved invaders, they were soon engulfed in conflict again—this time by invading Nazi Germany—and responded by courageously establishing the renowned 1939-45 resistance movement, which sprouted up in the fields, small towns and main cities, producing much heroic action. As many will know, Poles fought alongside the British throughout the Second World War—a time when Poland’s government in exile had its headquarters in London. I remember quite well, when I was a boy, a Polish exile who lived in our village (Whitchurchon- Thames) coming regularly to my family home and diligently cleaning the chimneys. He spoke little, but did a very thorough job.


THE WEAK POSITION OF FREEDOM

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

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

We can surely identify with his concern. “The weak position of freedom” is insidiously manifesting itself throughout our increasingly pacified Orwellian society, and it has recently come to undermine the long-standing traditions of the Polish countryside, and particularly the independence of the peasant and family farms and the hugely biodiverse 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.

When I was first invited in November of 2000 by Jadwiga Lopata, founder of The International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside (ICPPC), to come to Poland as a co-director of this newly established non-governmental organization, the country was preparing itself—or more correctly—was “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.

WARNING FROM THE WEST

One of our first tasks, as I saw it, was to warn 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 is 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 modernizing 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 opined that with unemployment running at 20 percent, how would one provide jobs for another million farmers dumped on the streets of Warsaw? This query was greeted with a stony silence which was eventually broken by a lady from Portugal, who rather quietly said that since Portugal had joined the European Union, sixty percent of small farmers had already left the land. She added, “The European Union is simply not interested in small farms.”

A month or so after this encounter, 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 what fate was in store for the Polish countryside if she 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 tons of wind- and water-eroded top-soil; and the loss from the land of around fifteen thousand farmers every year, accompanied by a rapid decline in the quality of food.

That night Rzeczpospolita, 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.

VICTORY OF PROPAGANDA

Poland joined the EU in 2004 after an intense publicity campaign calling upon Poles to “Say Yes to the EU!” The propaganda machine went into overdrive with brash promises of “pots of gold” to be 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. It meant spending hours out of your work day filling in endless forms, filing maps, and measuring every last inch of your fields, tracks and farmsteads. It meant applying for “passports” for your cattle and ear tags for your sheep and pigs, resiting the slurry pit and putting stainless steel and washable tiles on the dairy walls, becoming versed in HAASP 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 detail.

Throughout this time, I clearly remember the sense of losing something intangible, something which was not recallable. Something more valuable than that which was gained on the eventual arrival of the subsidy cheque had been forever lost.

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 civilized expression of life.

So now the Poles, with their two million family farms, were going to be subjected to the same fate, and Jadwiga and I felt desperate to try to 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 mantle of EU free trade agreements while a bought-out government stood to the side.

PREDATORY CORPORATIONS

What these corporations want (I use the present tense as the position remains the same today) 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 labor to the rest of the world for a big profit.

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

Farmers, once having fallen for the Common Agricultural Policy (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 farmer destruction 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 slaughterhouses have also suffered the same fate. Farmers increasingly have nowhere to to go to sell their cattle, sheep, pigs and milk. Exactly as 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 that they have left behind them are Tesco superstores and other hypermarket clones.

The European Union CAP sanitary and hygiene weapons have already been resharpened and are currently scything their way through Romanian family farms, whose extraordinary diversity and peasant farming skills are a ready match for Poland’s. The sterile and unstoppable conglomerate no doubt now has its sights set on Turkey, too.

What is known as the “global food economy” is the instrument of a relatively small number of very wealthy transnational corporations. It is a small club, but one that harbors very big ambitions. One such corporation is Monsanto (USA), whose recent marriage with the Cargill corporation makes it the biggest seed and agrichemical merchant in the world. Poland has been in the sights of the Monsanto corporation, as well as those of 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.

What they wanted was a relaxation of national GMO precautionary laws and a government commitment to support the development of genetically modified organisms as a symbol of the modernization of traditional Polish farming.

GMO RESISTANCE MOVEMENT

We at ICPPC got wind of these developments and decided to put the great majority of our time and the lion’s share of our meager financial resources into fighting this new and immensely threatening dragon. Thus started an amazing campaign which, over the space of one and a half years, managed to help galvanize the provincial boards of every province in Poland (there are 16) to come up with a “GMO Free Zone” self declaration. Each province in turn, picked up the torch and signed on, so that eventually (September 2005) the whole country could declare itself GMO free.

The chairs of each province wrote to the prime minister demanding national legislation to recognize their new status by law. At first nothing happened, but then, much to everyone’s surprise—and Monsanto’s fury—Jaroslaw Kaczynski (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 coming out of nowhere there was suddenly a country that had 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 barrier. 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 such a fairy tale scenario has yet to unfold. In fact, the situation has gone into decline. Under the current administration led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, the commercial planting of GM seeds is back on the agenda and a new act is proposed to align Poland with Brussels and open the possibility for the “coexistence” of GM and non-GM crops. Such a plan would spell disaster in the highly diverse Polish countryside and cross contamination would be inevitable. ICPPC continues (as of 2010) to battle against this outcome and to urge the current administration to follow the example of Germany, France, Austria, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria and Luxembourg and ban GM crops.

Back in 2005, bemused Polish farmers could hardly grasp the significance of attempts to foist genetically modified organisms upon them. Already deeply perplexed by the strange new world of western capitalism and shell shocked by the complexities and apparent two-facedness of the CAP, the additional need to absorb the seemingly unfathomable “science” and propaganda surrounding GMO left many confused and uncertain. Aware of this dangerously exploitable situation, we embarked on a countrywide awareness-raising campaign armed with the anti- GMO exposé film 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 against GMOs and were up against half a dozen Powerpoint-presentation-backed profs lecturing straight from the Monsanto manual. However, the distinctly intuitive Polish public nearly always came down on our side, offering much needed encouragement.

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 a high stake is held by outside interests. The GMO lobby had already won round 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’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” dictates by outright banning of GMO) and the huge corporate backlash resulting from the ban.

Now that a new government with a distinctly modernizing 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 organization, “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 organizations and key individuals on the books and we have made some headway with the wary media.

THE SMITHFIELD THREAT

Amongst those who have joined us 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 undercut the prices and destroy the livelihood of many hundreds of already hard pressed traditional pork 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 and have used the current high price of conventional animal feeds to pressure the government into postponing the ban. The Polish government changed as of 2006 and the incoming party did not feel inclined to enforce the ban. Consequently it was “put forward” until 2013 or beyond. Smithfield is still operating as before, but has moved its main operations to Romania, where small scale pig farmers will no doubt suffer the same market distortions that Smithfield brought about in Poland.

THE ONLY CHEAP OPTION?

How ironic it is, that the hell-bent U.S. development of biofuels has played into the hands of the exponents of cheap, mass-produced, GMO-aided animal flesh production, by forcing up the price of conventional feeds, such as barley-based products, caused by the replacement of cereal production with millions of acres of GM maize for burning up as 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 the government to encourage farmers to grow their own traditional feed products, but in a world hooked on the global shipment of cheap proteins, such advice has fallen on deaf ears.

Poland has all the potential for a full blown peasants’ revolt to recapture the right to grow, eat and trade their superb farmhouse foods, thus freeing themselves from the increasing stranglehold that the bureaucratically perverse sanitary and hygiene regulations have 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 mitigating against such an action is the fact that a fair proportion of farmers have already signed up to the “pot of gold” held tantalizingly in front of their noses by the Brussels bureaucrats. This so-called pot of gold ultimately delivers just a few crumbs of financial support to small farms of five to seven hectares, but rewards large farms with substantial offerings.

Money can indeed buy out the seeds of revolution but the hearts of the peasants will not be satisfied. 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 national and transnational power brokers, a watchful eye will be kept on any potentially rebellious leaders and covert efforts made to ensure that peasant farmers remain passive.

However, we are in for some big changes, some from the hand of a poisoned and polluted nature in rebellion, but others by the hand of those who are 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 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 unbought and its seeds unmodified.

This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2010.

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