Painful entry for Poland into the EU

ZOE YOUNG travels through Poland to find that its farmers dread integration with the EU

Published: Sunday 29 February 2004

Painful entry for Poland into the EU

-- "I am not sure we can survive the European Union(eu)," says Andrzej Konkol, an organic farmer in Kashubia, Northern Poland. His daughter translates while her young twin brothers amble about the yard in the afternoon sun. Grinning broadly, they half lead, half follow the gangling calf they'd watched being born a week earlier. Andrzej continues, "When I went to Denmark, I saw only big farms there. And I learnt that small farms like ours had all gone bankrupt."

On their 40 hectares of rolling farmland, Andrzej and his wife Teresa grow organic vegetables, cereal and fruit, and keep pigs, fowl, cows, bees, dogs and cats. Birds dart from wooden barn doors to feast on insects swarming over ponds, meadows and woodland where black cranes nest and wild boar roam. Around the farm, children run and play, and their grandmother feeds chickens. Teresa does the milking, her mother-in-law makes butter in the kitchen, Andrzej cuts wildflower hay and tends pumpkin plants sprouting in composting pig shit. Nearby, Teresa's father ploughs his steep land with horses. The family heats their house with wood, and pickle vegetables for the winter. They own two cars, a tractor and a television and have an eco-tourist campsite beside their garage. They also receive agricultural subsidies.

Poland's 40 million inhabitants abide between East and West, tradition and modernity, communism and capitalism, and now politically, Europe and the us. Three million people of Polish descent live in the us, and their influence played a big part in the Polish government's decision of supporting the us with troops in Iraq -- much against the wishes of most Poles. And in June 2003, 60 per cent voters turned up to vote for a referendum on joining the eu in 2004. About 80 per cent of them said yes. But there also remains widespread unease over this move: the conservative League of Polish families fears that the eu would be a front for German expansion. Even many of those supporting eu entry feel that they are not ready to make the required changes. Poland must cut huge deficits and find some us $ 8.1 billion to meet its dues to the union. That is likely to require the firing of thousands of workers and government officials in a country that already has nearly 20 per cent unemployment.
Urban vs rural The Times, London called the pro- eu vote, "a triumph of urban Poland over rural Poland." Messages went to every mobile phone urging Poles to vote. Free admission to museums encouraged city dwellers to stay home and vote -- rather than spend the warm weekend in the country where over a third of Poles still live, and where the eu is viewed with enormous suspicion.

The World Fact Book of the Central Intelligence Agency, usa notes that "Poland's large agricultural sector remains handicapped by structural problems, surplus labour, inefficient small farms and lack of investment." Two million small, mainly family, farms resisted collectivisation of production by the communists who ruled Poland from the second world war until the end of the 1980s. Now they do not welcome another attempt to reorganise them in the name of externally-defined efficiency. A recent study found that "68 per cent Poles think that Polish agriculture will be damaged as a result of integration with the eu."

British organic farm activist Julian Rose says, "The eu believes that drastic restructuring will be essential if Polish farming and its rural economy are to fall in line with Western European standards and incomes. This will involve stripping about 1,200,000 farmers off their land." "With next to no subsidy to adapt, where will dispossessed farming communities go?" asks Rose.

Few Polish farmers can afford intensive mechanisation, pesticides or fertiliser. So they still produce fresh organic food for sale in local market. Their agricultural practices have ensured survival of traditional landscapes and wildlife. Long-term research in West Poland has suggested that the 'mosaic landscape' of small cultivated fields, meadows and small ponds reduces problems of water shortage, controls groundwater chemistry and helps maintain biodiversity.

Will farmers gain?
Not everybody is alarmed at the prospects of integration with the eu. Many Polish environmentalists actually feel that open borders with other eu member states (in particular neighbouring Germany) would encourage wholesome exports from a land little touched by modern chemicals. They believe that Polish farm produce could be just what the doctor ordered for Western Europeans over-stuffed with factory and supermarket products and junk food. As Steve Sperelakis, us-educated president of one organic food exporting firm put it, "Polish agriculture is so far behind the West that in many ways it's ahead of it."

According to Jerzy Plewa, Polish deputy minister of agriculture and rural development, "Joining the European Union, could have important gains for us. Non-polluted rural areas with rich biodiversity and organically grown agricultural products are Poland's advantages." "From its mixed landscape Poland can export fruit, vegetables, wheat, poultry, eggs and pork to other eu countries," adds Sperelakis.

However, Poland's government is doing nothing to enhance this comparative advantage. Instead, it has set production limits far below the capacities of Polish agriculturists. Targets for Polish milk production, for example, are set at eight million litres, when the land can produce up to 13 million.

Meanwhile implementation of new hygiene rules is likely to make it impossible for many small local businesses to compete with European competitors. Small producers, market stalls and slaughter houses will have enormous difficulties in complying with eu regulations from 2004. In addition, they would have the onerous task of competing with foreign firms experienced in factory farming and packaging techniques. Moreover, the eu regulations do not necessarily ensure food safety. In uk, for example, the closure of slaughter houses was accompanied by an increase in food poisoning incidents. But this has not altered the eu food safety bodies' push for faster Polish 'compliance'.

Of course, some Polish farm outfits are in dire need of modernisation. And farmers here are not averse to learning from the best practices of their counterparts in other countries. But they apprehend that their efforts would not amount to anything and Polish agriculture might go the way of agricultural in other eu nations. For example in the uk, implementation of eu agricultural policies favoured large scale agribusiness at the expense of rural economies. And it must be remembered that agriculture employs only one per cent of the labour force in the uk. The effects of integration are likely to be much more serious in Poland, where agriculturists constitute about 25 per cent of the labour force.

Unequal subsidies
There are other serious worries. Farm subsidies will not come through for Poland until local registration systems for livestock are set up. There will be some official support for agricultural holdings that fall in line with eu standards, and agricultural semi-subsistence farms will receive up to us $ 1,556 annually in the next five years. But Polish farmers will be in competition with eu farmers, who who receive 75 per cent more subsidies. This is because eu rules stipulate that Polish farmers can receive only 25 per cent of the subsidies available to existing member states' farmers. They will be entitled to maximum subsidies only after 2014.

This grave inequity has angered many in Poland. Says Danuta Hojarska, a member of parliament from the farmers' party, Samoobrona and a member of the Polish Parliamentary Commission on Agriculture, "Foreign investors are welcome, if they play fair in Polish markets. But we will not accept them if they buy everything up, close down our plants and put our people out of business." Former president (the leader of 'Solidarnosc' shipyard strikes against the communists) Lech Walesa is a keen Europhile, but he is very annoyed at the way Poland has been treated by the eu. "They know we have lower technology levels and lower yields per hectare in agriculture. But still they expect us to compete with them on unfair terms. There is no logic to this madness," he laments.

But in fact there is some logic to this madnes: the eu's existing Common Agricultural Policy (cap) is so designed that were it to be extended eastwards, subsidising Poland alone would render the union bankrupt. Poland is by far the largest of the seven prospective eu countries from eastern Europe, and its farmers are politically very active. In the summer of 2002, farmers mobilised by Samoobrona, blocked roads and went on a rampage. That year its support base reached an all time high of 20 per cent. It remains a threat to the pro-eu group.

Agriculture minister Plewa, however, believes that Poland's strong farmer's lobby is actually a blessing in disguise for the country's pro-eu group. "With a strong position in the eu and a well prepared analytical base, we will take an active part in the discussions on the reform of cap. We can surely exert a real impact on its future shape," he believes.

Invasion of Poland
But so far the Polish government has not demonstrated any political will to exert influence on the eu. Meanwhile, Western agribusiness has started making inroads into Poland. While local producers struggle to raise working capital in a notoriously tight banking system, big British and Danish farmers are among those buying up Polish farmland to take advantage of lower production costs and the subsidy structure expected with accession.

us corporations have also jumped into the fray. In fact one of them, Smithfield foods, has even started infringing Polish veterinary laws to convert former collective farms into what one critic calls "animal concentration camps." At the corporation's factory in North Poland, tens of thousands of animals are kept in huge barns where the din can exceed 90 decibels. Sows are confined to gestation crates, so tiny that they are unable to turn. Pig excrement full of heavy metals, antibiotics and other pollutants is washed out into a giant 'lagoon' outside the factory.

Sickness is rampant amongst the animals. The uk Soil Association's policy advisor Richard Young observes that "animals inevitably become sick when they are kept in crowded conditions. This is why the pig industry is hooked on antibiotics." But now, even these medicines are now losing their effectiveness because of overuse.

Meanwhile Smithfield has bought a majority stake in Polish meat-packing conglomerate Animex and Prima. The company's 'European Commission Export Standard' abattoirs do not accept pigs from independent producers unless they comply with its conditions. Most Polish farmers cannot meet these standards and consequently they have been thrown out of business. Laments Rose, "Agribusiness has made a fettish of 'efficiency.' All their operations are confined to large factories and so enormous stocks of animals are concentrated in the hands of a few corporations."

Their Polish venture makes economic sense to Smithfield for a variety of reasons. Says Joseph Luter, president of the company, "Polish hog-raising is, in many respects, similar to American hog-raising thirty years ago. We believe that the strategies that were used in the usa will be equally, or even more, successful in Poland and Europe." The goal of the corporation is to enclose large tracts of Polish land and profit from their productivity before Western European corporations step in. The coporation's ventures have the financial backing of the multilateral European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Besides, Smithfield faces a growing number of environmental and labour lawsuits at home. In 1997, it was fined us $12.6 million for dumping pollutants from a slaughterhouse into a river. It was also fined us $3.8 million for over 20,000 other violations in the state of Virginia alone. It has numerous other environmental problems. Says Robert Kennedy a vocal critic of the company, "Floods accompanying hurricane Floyd in September 1999 washed vast quantities of hog waste out of dump lagoons near Smithfield factories. Beaches hundreds of miles away were coated with fecal scum." He adds, "Liquefied hog manure from Smithfield factories emit nearly 400 gases. Plumes of ammonia rise from these factories, adding to the nitrogen burden of lakes and streams. They also generate hydrogen sulfide, which can reach lethal concentrations in poorly ventilated buildings. This gas is actually responsible for the death of tens of thousands of confined hogs and, at least, 19 workers. A majority of Smithfield workers have been found to suffer from chronic respiratory distress; skin infections are also endemic among them." With tough times at home, it makes sense for Smithfield to move to other areas.

But Smithfield is not the only threat to the Polish countryside. According to Rose, "the Polish parliament is in the process of adopting a biofuel act. Under the guise of promoting a clean, environmentally friendly fuel it will, in reality, encourage the widespread use of agrichemicals and open the door for the production of genetically modified crops."

There are numerous challenges for Polish agriculture. So can the Konkol family hold onto their heritage and livelihood while welcoming the best of the new? More importantly, will the Polish government learn from both its own history and other nations' mistakes, and ensure that new alliances are good for the Polish people, their land and nature -- and are not just for the profit of a few?

Zoe Young is a filmmaker,writer and researcher. She stays in London, UK

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