We ignored the ‘No Entry’ sign at Smithfield hog factory, near Szczecinek, west Pomerania, in northwest Poland. Clambering over wire barriers, we wrenched open the ventilation shaft of one of three vast concrete and corrugated iron sheds. Inside, 5,000 squealing pigs were crammed into small compartments. Outside, effluent from concrete cesspits had overflowed, sending a small stream into the lake below. In a large plastic bin (empty the previous night) we found 20 dead pigs.
Pig factories are invading Poland. When the German army launched its invasion in 1939, Britain declared war to save the country. Now, when the world’s largest pork production company, Smithfield Foods, threatens the livelihood of two million farmers, Poland’s best foreign ally is a lone ecologist from the state of Wyoming, named Tom Garrett.
These sorts of pig factories are not just a threat to local farmers, they are a disaster for all of us, says Garrett. Poland has tens of millions of acres of land tilled to this day without artificial chemicals. It may be the last bastion of traditional farming in Europe and our last hope for unpolluted food on a large scale. Garrett told me that Robert Kennedy Jr has said that ‘pig factory farms are more dangerous for our lifestyle and democracy than Osama bin Laden and global terrorism’.
If this sounds melodramatic, consider Garrett’s evidence. Drawing on his experience in the US, where he has faced Smithfield before, he said, ‘Everywhere this company has operated, there has been gross environmental degradation from liquefied hog faeces stored in open sewage pits and sprayed on fields. Rivers, lakes and even aquifers are polluted. In North Carolina, where industrial hog-farming is particularly intense, the rivers were so polluted that toxic algae called pfiesteria piscicida began to flourish. They killed countless millions of fish and left hundreds of swimmers and boaters with neurological damage and skin lesions that refused to heal. Tourism and coastal fishing were virtually destroyed. In the meantime, communities near hog factory development, wherever it occurs, are burdened with a nauseating stench — whole regions are afflicted. You have to smell it to believe it.’
Even if it were not polluting the countryside, the entire operation at the factory we dropped in on would be illegal. Local officials told us that Smithfield — or Prima Farms, as it calls itself here — had only been given a permit to renovate a derelict state farm that had housed cattle and sheep on condition that it guaranteed 15 local jobs. Five thousand pigs arrived in the dead of night, but no locals were employed. Villagers only grasped what had happened when the company began dumping liquid faeces on the snow-covered fields.
Garrett has been defeated in battle with Smithfield in the US, where they have powerful corporate and government allies, but in Poland he hopes to win. In Warsaw I accompanied a group of journalists and NGOs to deliver a letter Garrett had drafted to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), signed by — among others — Robert F. Kennedy Jr, the Sierra Club, America’s largest environmental charity, and Poland’s surging populist politician Andrzej Lepper. Why, the letter asked, had the EBRD, which purports to be ‘environmentally sensitive’, organised a $100 million loan to Smithfield’s wholly owned Polish subsidiary Animex S.A.?
The office manager, Irena Grzbowska, an attractive woman with a strong American accent, explained that Smithfield had asked to use the money for vertical integration, to raise the pigs they then slaughtered in their abattoirs. She said that the EBRD had insisted its contribution be applied only to modernising Animex packing houses and paying off high-interest debts. Why, we asked, should one of the richest American companies receive EU-subsidised loans? How come Smithfield managed to purchase Animex, the state-owned conglomerate of giant communist-era farms, for such a bargain price (the Polish government had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on improvements pre-sale) that Luter, the CEO, could boast that he’d ‘only paid 10 cents of the dollar’. With no one to answer our questions, Grzbowska admitted, ‘EBRD doesn’t have any experts on the project in Poland and it is too expensive to send experts over from head office in London.’
Marek Kryder of the Animal Welfare Institute explained that although there are laws making it illegal for foreigners to purchase former state farms, Smithfield operates behind Polish-registered front companies so as to bypass them. As Prima Farms, Smithfield has launched a huge drive to buy and convert dozens of former state farms near the German border (and so, of course, near potential EU markets) into intensive pig factories. ‘The State Farm Property Agency set up to “privatise” state farms knows exactly what’s going on,’ says Garrett. ‘They’re obviously in on the fraud; so is the governor of the voivodship [province]. There are former ministers of agriculture and even some currently serving officials on Animex’s board.’
The people who live near the pig factory in west Pomerania were angry, frightened and powerless. Village and township officials told us that the voivodship had taken Prima’s side, making it impossible for them to defend their community. ‘If you had informed us six months earlier,’ they said, ‘we would have refused all permits and prevented Prima from gaining a foothold.’ Now, the only course of action left open to them is to contest the company on environmental grounds.
We also visited Prima’s factory farm at Nielep, a few miles to the north, where 30,000 pigs are confined in two-storey buildings. A tall man in a surgical mask met us at the gate of the compound. He identified himself as the manager, claimed that the factory had all the appropriate permits and the required number of employees, and demanded that we keep away. He claimed that although there was no bedding for the pigs, they were well looked after, but refused to say how many were impounded, how many died each day or what mix of chemicals was pumped into them. The manager had been taken to Smithfield installations in North Carolina for training. No surprise, then, that he repeated the standard company line: ‘Our local and national opponents are selfishly concerned with animal welfare when they should be concerned with feeding the world.’
With the help of people like Tom Garrett the Poles are beginning to wake up to the dangers of Smithfield. Local authorities are demanding to be allowed control of the former state farms so as to give tenancies to former employees rather than to transnational foreign companies. People are signing petitions and farmers across Poland are organising blockades.
But if banks such as the EBRD use EU taxpayers’ money to subsidise companies such as Smithfield, there is only a limited amount that the people can do to save themselves. Inevitably, small farmers will disappear, food quality will deteriorate, animals will suffer and Poland will be forced to abandon an ancient life based on community living, family and land stewardship.
Tracy Worcester is the associate director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (www.isec.org.uk).