Smithfield Foods: the truth behind its pigs and factories

The Ecologist goes inside the workings of Smithfield to reveal the true horrors of its pig production business

We ignored the ‘no entry’ sign at a recently opened Smithfield pig factory, clambered over wire barriers and wrenched open the ventilation shaft of one of three vast concrete and corrugated iron sheds.

Inside, 5,000 squealing pigs were crammed into strawless compartments. Outside, effluent from cement cesspits, though now frozen, had over-flowed and sent a small stream of brown stinking liquid into the lake below. In a large plastic bin (empty the previous night) we found 20 dead pigs. Astonishingly, it seems that the entire operation is illegal.

When the German army launched its invasion in 1939, much of the world declared war to save Poland. Now, when the trans-national agribusiness firm Smithfield Foods threatens the livelihoods of 4 million farmers, Poland’s best foreign allies come from an unlikely source: Robert Kennedy Jr, lawyer and leader of a US coalition of family farmers, fishermen, environmental and animal welfare organisations; Tom Garrett, an ecologist from the state of Wyoming; and Tracy Worcester, actress-turned environmental activist.

Who are Smithfield Foods?

When Robert Kennedy Jr wrote ‘pig factory farms are more dangerous for our lifestyle and democracy than Osama bin Laden and global terrorism’ he was fined $128,000. Why would he make such an allegation? Because of the growth of factory farming, Iowa has lost 45,000 independent pig farmers in recent years. Joe Luter told The Washington Post that Smithfield will turn ‘Poland into the Iowa of Europe’.

A spill from one pig lagoon killed a billion fish in North Carolina’s Neuse River in 1995. Bulldozers had to be used to plough the dead fish clear. Today 100 million fish die in the river every year.

The Virginia-based firm Smithfield Foods is one of a handful of multinationals that are transforming global meat production from a traditional farm enterprise to a factory-style industrial activity. It is the largest pork producer in the world, controlling almost 30 per cent of the US pork market. The Smithfield style of industrial pork production is a major source of air pollution and probably the largest cause of water pollution in the US.

Smithfield and its fellow industrial pork producers have driven tens of thousands of family farmers off the land, shattered rural communities, poisoned thousands of miles of US waterways, killed billions of fish, put thousands of fishermen out of work, sickened rural residents and treated hundreds of millions of farm animals with unspeakable and unnecessary cruelty.

In 1999 Smithfield began buying slaughterhouses and state farms in Poland. On 22 July this year the firm’s vice president promised Poland’s Senate agricultural committee that Smithfield will ‘modernise’ Polish agriculture and bring prosperity and jobs to rural communities.

For 20 years Smithfield and its allies have made identical promises to the people of the rural US state of North Carolina. The North Carolinan Senate subsequently passed legislation to make it much easier for Smithfield to do business in the state. With encouragement from these politicians, Smithfield built the largest slaughterhouse in the world in Bladen County. The plant butchers 30,000 pigs each day and has triggered a boom in factory-style production of pig meat in North Carolina.

Factory farms Smithfield used to be a simple meat packer with no experience of owning a pig farm at all. Its CEO Joe Luter began buying up farms so that the company could control all aspects of pork production – ‘from piglets to pork chops’. Luter describes himself as ‘a tough man in a tough business’, but surprisingly doesn’t live near one of his pig farms.

Instead, his home is a $17m Park Avenue mansion in New York. He is known for a ruthless approach to business that maximises profits by industrialising agriculture and eliminating both animal husbandry and the family farm.

Smithfield builds football field-sized warehouses in which it crams thousands of genetically manipulated pigs into tiny metal boxes where they are deprived of sunlight, exercise, straw bedding, rooting and social interaction.

Yet a pig is as smart and sensitive as a dog. In these stressful conditions, they are kept alive by constant doses of antibiotics and heavy metals. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria and additive residues naturally end up in their waste. Industrial-style pollution. A pig produces 10 times as much waste as a human. One of Smithfield’s Utah factories houses 850,000 pigs and produces more faecal waste than New York City’s 8.5 million people.

Dirty waste

In pig factories waste falls through slatted floors into a basement, where it is periodically flushed into giant outdoor pits called lagoons. While cities must treat sewage before discharging it, Smithfield’s meat factories just dump their liquid manure untreated onto fields, which quickly become saturated.

It then seeps into groundwater or is carried by rain into nearby streams or lakes. Waste from these factories contains a witch’s brew of nearly 400 dangerous substances – including heavy metals, antibiotics, hormones, deadly biocides, pesticides and dozens of disease-causing viruses and microbes. Antibiotic residues in this lethal soup foster the growth of deadly ‘super bugs’ – disease organisms that are immune to human antibiotics.

Polluted water supplies

Millions of tons of faecal stew produced by pig-meat factories have poisoned the groundwater in 34 US states with deadly nitrates that can kill infants and cause severe mental retardation in children. In 1998 alone, Smithfield was fined $12.6m for 6,900 violations of the US Clean Water Act. Disease epidemics caused by meat factories have sickened and killed thousands of Americans. In 1993 a meat operation’s microbes were thought to be responsible for tainting the water supply in Milwaukee. Some 400,000 people (half the city’s population) fell sick, and 114 died.

Sick rivers

Fifteen years ago North Carolina had some of the purest waters in the US. Today it has some of the most polluted. A spill from one pig lagoon killed a billion fish in the Neuse River in 1995. Bulldozers had to be used to plough the dead fish clear. Thanks to Smithfield’s pig industry activities, pollution has poisoned the Neuse so badly that 100 million fish die in it every year.

Pfiesteria – the ‘cell from hell’

Pig factory contaminants have caused outbreaks of a previously unknown microbe, Pfiesteria piscicida, in the US’s coastal waters. Pfiesteria kills fish by the billion, and causes open sores that won’t heal, severe respiratory illness and brain damage in humans who handle affected fish or swim in polluted water. Pustulating sores cover the bodies of fishermen from the Neuse River. Thanks to Pfiesteria-caused brain damage, some of the fishermen have trouble recalling basic information – including how to get home. After Pfiesteria appeared in Maryland, the state had to close the rivers of the Chesapeake Bay to protect public health.

Bad odours

Pig factory smells defy description. Neighbouring farmers choke, vomit and faint from the fetid gases as they ride their tractors or work their fields. The smell cannot be removed from skin or clothing – even with the strongest soap. Food eaten even a mile downwind of a pig factory can take on the odour and flavour of pig waste. In the summer neighbours are unable to sit on their porches, open their windows, hang their laundry out to dry or even enjoy their meals. The odours can be so strong that they nauseate people flying in aeroplanes as high as 3,000 feet above industrial pig plants.

Dangerous gases

The fumes inside pig buildings are so strong that the animals quickly die from asphyxiation if the ventilation systems fail. Hydrogen sulphide, methane and ammonia gases emanating from these factories also harm human health. Numerous studies show that factory farm workers and downwind neighbours are unusually susceptible to lung disease, nausea, eye infections, nosebleeds, gastrointestinal illness, depression and even brain damage. Every year, pig factory workers become seriously ill and die from deadly gases emanating from liquid manure pits.

Recent scientific papers produced by the US government indicate that toxic air discharges from pig factories are so poisonous they violate federal health and environmental laws and endanger the health of human neighbours. One study shows that millions of antibiotic-resistant bacteria move by air from pig factories every day, threatening public health and neighbouring herds. Another study shows that some meat factories emit seven times the particulate matter allowed under US clear-air laws.

The end of the US family farm

Each pig factory puts 10 family farmers out of business, replacing high-quality agricultural jobs with three or four hourly wage workers in degrading positions that are among the lowest-paid and most dangerous in the US. Because the animals are given almost no husbandry, as few as two workers may tend a factory of 10,000 pigs. Conditions are so miserable that employees seldom endure these jobs for more than a few months.

Major slaughterhouses, including those owned by Smithfield, have a 100 per cent annual employee turnover rate. The situation in North Carolina is typical. Two decades ago there were 27,000 family pig farmers in the state. Today, there are almost none. North Carolina’s pig farmers have been replaced by 2,200 pig factories – 1,600 of which are owned or indentured by Smithfield.

The firm now controls 75 per cent of pig production in the state. From North Carolina, Smithfield moved to Iowa – the number-one pig producing state in the US. Because of the growth of factory farming, Iowa has lost 45,000 independent pig farmers in recent years. Joe Luter told The Washington Post that Smithfield will turn ‘Poland into the Iowa of Europe’.

Snouts in the trough

Big, bad and bent. In the early days of Smithfield Foods, the company signed a few contracts with large North Carolinan producers to provide tens of thousands of pigs for its slaughterhouse. It then took over those producers, who had to take Smithfield’s price for their farms because they had nowhere else to slaughter their pigs. Once Smithfield owned these large farms it began overproducing pigs so that the price of pork dropped from 60 cents per pound to eight cents per pound. Since it costs 36 cents per pound for a farmer to raise a pig, most other US pig farmers went to the wall. Only pig farmers who sign contracts with Smithfield survive.

These contracts are never negotiated. The desperate farmers will sign the contract the way Smithfield writes it. Typically, Smithfield contracts require farmers to use their property for security and borrow approximately $200,000 to build warehouses according to the firm’s specifications. In return, Smithfield promises the farmer approximately $20,000 per year.

The farmer owns the warehouse and pays the insurance and interest to the bank. Smithfield owns the feed and the pigs. The farmer also owns the manure, but Smithfield does not pay the farmer enough for him to be able to legally dispose of it. That’s his problem and the problem of his community as he pollutes the air and water with the excess manure.

Often Smithfield’s contracts last only one year, even though it will take farmers 20 years to pay off their warehouse mortgage. When it is in Smithfield’s interest to buy more land, the company has the power to make future contracts so burdensome that farmers go bankrupt. Smithfield can then buy their property from the bank for pennies on the dollar. Since these farms are valueless without a Smithfield contract, there are no other bidders. In this way Smithfield came to control pork production in North Carolina.

Even with the wholesale price of pork as low as eight cents per pound Smithfield continues to make money, because the price the consumer pays for Smithfield’s processed pig-meat products stays the same. And with Smithfield owning the sole slaughterhouse, it squeezes the farmer until it has a monopoly on farm production. This is one of the reasons why the US Senate, along with many national legislatures, is considering legislation that will ban the ownership of farms by slaughterhouses. Smithfield’s ‘integration’ system, through which it is farmer, slaughterhouse and meat packer, puts small farmers at a catastrophic disadvantage.

There are many studies that show that factory farms have a devastating impact on rural economies and quality of life. There is not a single empirical study showing net benefits to rural communities. Studies show that property values in areas hosting pork factories fall, on average by 30 per cent. If you drive through the US’s rural communities, you will see bankrupted hardware and feed stores (factory farms don’t buy locally), boarded up high streets and closed banks, churches and schools. The US’s heartland and historic landscapes are being emptied of rural Americans and occupied by large corporations.

Political corruption

Traditional farms are exempt from laws regulating the disposal of manure, because for them manure is not waste but a valuable fertiliser. However, pig factories produce far more manure than is needed to fertilise the fields around them. The costs of properly treating and disposing of this waste make factory farming uncompetitive for traditional farms – unless they violate numerous environmental laws. Because factory meat producers must break the law in order to survive, the industry’s business plan relies on the assumption that pork factories will be able to evade prosecution by improperly influencing government officials.

Smithfield uses its wealth to buy politicians, paralyse regulatory agencies and break health and environmental laws with impunity. In North Carolina Smithfield made business partnerships with then state and US senators Wendell Murphy and Launch Faircloth, who protected the company’s interests in local and federal legislatures. Using these alliances and adept campaign contributions, the pig industry has been able to corrupt and control the North Carolina state senate. The state’s largest newspaper, The News and Observer, won the Pulitzer Prize for its five-part investigative report disclosing how the factory pig industry had captured and corrupted the state senate. And in 2000 Murphy was made a director of Smithfield. He now owns 15 per cent of the company’s shares.

Politicians who oppose the pig barons are punished. When North Carolina’s Duplin County state assembly-woman Cynthia Watson began speaking out against Smithfield’s impact on her farm community, the pig industry launched a savage multi-million dollar attack, spending as much as $510,000 a week for two years to destroy her reputation. Watson was subsequently unseated, and the pig barons succeeded in sending a powerful warning to all North Carolina’s senators not to oppose their industry.

Citizens who protest get the same treatment. When communities have opposed the siting of pig factory farms within their localities they have had their democratic rights removed. In Iowa, North Carolina, Michigan and many other US states and Canadian provinces, public officials have stripped local governments of their decision-making powers over these facilities. Similarly, Polish local officials who opposed Smithfield developments have been overruled by national authorities.

The industry routinely uses bullying lawyers and illegal intimidation, threats, harassment and violence to terrorise and silence its critics – including those among its own workers. A group of Nebraska citizens who made comments during a public hearing on a pig factory planning proposal were sued by Nebraska’s largest livestock producer. Neighbouring farmers are routinely sued for participating in public hearings or speaking out against the pig industry.

Taking over Europe via Poland

Just as Smithfield used North Carolina to launch its takeover of US pork production in the 1980s, so Poland is now being used as Smithfield’s platform for launching its bid for monopoly control of pork production in Europe. In 1999 Smithfield purchased Animex, the state-owned conglomerate of slaughterhouses and giant communist-era farms responsible for exporting Polish sausage and ham to the US.

The deal was a bargain, Smithfield paid only $55m just after Animex had made, at state expense, extensive renovations to its facilities. The estimated value of the company following these improvements was $500m, causing Smithfield CEO Joe Luter to boast that he paid ‘only 10 cents on the dollar’ for Animex. But gaining monopoly control of national slaughterhouse capacity is difficult in Poland, because there are over 4,000 slaughterhouses in the country.

Smithfield’s strategy?

Get the government to close down the competition for them. Following a three-hour meeting between Luter and Poland’s then prime minister Jerzy Buzek, the Polish government began closing hundreds of small slaughterhouses. Buzek’s minister of agriculture promulgated regulations that would put up to 50 per cent of Poland’s slaughterhouses out of business. The government justified these new rules under the fraudulent pretence that small slaughterhouses must be shut down to comply with the EU regulations. EU regulations clearly state, however, that small slaughterhouses may be kept open to serve regional markets.

Germany, France and Sweden have all fought to keep their small slaughterhouses and milk plants open, and even subsidise them in the knowledge that local markets and food distribution depend on them. Once small slaughterhouses disappear, local markets quickly follow. Furthermore, large high-tech slaughterhouses do not make for a safer food supply.

In the US and the UK the closure of small slaughterhouses coincided with huge increases in meat-borne disease (by 300 per cent and 500 per cent, respectively). This is because large centralised slaughterhouses encourage the consolidation of pork production on factory-farm lines; disease is rampant in factory farms, and the long transport distances resulting from centralisation stress the animals and spread disease further.

In addition, technologies that increase line speed inside the slaughterhouse multiply worker errors and make proper inspections impossible. Now the big slaughterhouses are insisting on the controversial technology of irradiation in order to solve the problems of disease. The Polish government took a number of other steps to facilitate Smithfield’s takeover of Polish agriculture. First, it legalised the uncontrolled use of liquid manure and tried to dismantle the country’s Animal Welfare Act. Then it allowed Smithfield to use front companies to buy and lease farms in Poland, despite official policies forbidding foreigners to purchase Polish agricultural land.

Finally, it gave large pork-export subsidies to Smithfield amounting to 55 cents per kilogramme. The subsidies were supposed to aid Polish farmers, but as Smithfield imports both its pigs and the feed it is difficult to see how. With this help, Smithfield has converted as many as 35 Polish state farms into pig factories. One in Nielep, West Pomerania, already houses 30,000 pigs. To circumvent Polish laws, some of these factories are listed as the property of front companies wholly owned by Smithfield. Prima Farms, for example, is officially owned by two Poles, but every important decision must be signed by Mr Griffith of Smithfield. In this way, Smithfield can capture subsidies from the EU intended for Polish farmers.

The pattern is almost identical to the route Smithfield took in Carolina. Soon Smithfield will own all the landscapes of Poland, and the farmers who are so critical to the country’s culture and democracy will be wiped off the land. Smithfield’s invasion of Poland Fields covered with faeces, children vomiting at school, plastic bins stuffed full of dead pigs.

Robert Kennedy and Tracy Worcester experience firsthand the reality of life in Smithfield’s Poland

Ignoring Smithfield’s ‘no entry’ sign, we clambered over wire barriers and wrenched open the ventilation shaft of one of three vast concrete and corrugated iron sheds. The noise was deafening. Five thousand squealing pigs were crammed into strawless compartments inside the recently opened pig factory near the town of Szczecinek in the northwestern Polish province Zachodnio-Pomorskie. Back outside, effluent from cement cesspits had over-flowed – sending a small stream of brown, stinking liquid into the lake below, which had then frozen over. In a large plastic bin we found 20 dead pigs. When we’d looked the night before, it had been empty. It seems that the entire operation is illegal.

During the communist era, the state farm had employed 44 locals. Officials told us that Prima (a Polish company now owned by Smithfield) had only been given a permit to renovate the derelict farm on condition it guaranteed 15 local jobs. Instead, no locals were employed and 5,000 pigs arrived in the dead of night. Villagers only grasped what had happened when the company began illegally dumping liquid faeces on the snow-covered fields.

People were angry and frightened, but village and township officials told us they were powerless to defend their community as the local government had taken Prima’s side. ‘If you had informed us of Smithfield’s record six months earlier,’ they told us, ‘we would have refused all permits and prevented Prima from gaining a foothold.’ Now they could only ask for our help in challenging the company on environmental grounds.

A few miles north we visited Prima’s factory farm at Nielep, where 30,000 pigs are confined. We were met at the compound gate by a tall man in a surgical face mask. Removing the mask, he identified himself as the manager and demanded that we kept away. Responding to our questions about animal welfare, he claimed that although there was no bedding for the pigs, the factory had all the appropriate permits and required number of employees. However, he refused to say exactly how many pigs were impounded, how many died each day or what mix of chemicals were pumped into them. Admitting that he had been taken to Smithfield installations in North Carolina for training, he mouthed the standard company line: ‘Our local and national opponents are selfishly concerned with animal welfare instead of feeding the world’.

Local resistance

In a nearby village, a meeting had been convened for local farmers and authorities to hear Tom Garrett of the animal rights advocacy group the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) describe Smithfield’s record in the US. People sat in stunned silence as they tried to grasp the impending destruction of their livelihoods and community.

When Garrett had finished, the audience erupted. Many demanded that the local authorities in Poland take control of the country’s former state farms and give tenancies to former employees rather than foreign transnationals. Desperate and angry, one old lady confirmed what we had already seen: ‘The company has been spreading effluent over snow-covered fields,’ she explained. ‘People have developed rashes and stomach upsets.’

The stench from the effluent had caused vomiting, which threatened the closure of the local school and the destruction of local businesses. To raucous applause, a local politician declared: ‘Smithfield must be kicked out.’ This same cry is now being heard all over Poland, with locals signing petitions and farmers forming blockades to get Smithfield out. Across the provincial border from Zachodnio-Pomorskie is Wieckowice, a beautiful village of brick and wooden homes, shrines and long stone barns in the region of Wielkopolska. There we found several dozen local activists carrying signs outside a former state farm owned by Smithfield’s Polish subsidiary Animex. The facility has permits for only 500 cows and 500 pigs. It has been reported that it houses 17,000 pigs. The farm is 40 yards from an elementary school where residents say their children get sick and vomit because of the pig odours.

Among the protesters was Irena Kowalak, a dignified woman who served as village mayor for 35 years. She told us she had resigned recently because of intimidation by Smithfield. Andrzej Nowakowski is the governor of Wielkopolska. Nowakowski said that the local population was unanimously and adamantly opposed to Smithfield and that he refused to give the company permits when it bought the farm two years ago. But six months later Poland’s environment ministry overrode him. Nonetheless, thanks to the governor, Smithfield has not been able to get permits for liquid manure. So the farm uses straw bedding and has not yet devised a plan for disposing of its waste.

Fields of wheat surround the pig barns, but they are never harvested because Smithfield is not interested in agriculture. To Smithfield, these fields are a place to dump the notorious wastes of industrial meat production. A convoy of indignant Wieckowice residents took us out to see the giant pile of pig manure. On the side of a 1,000-acre wheat field was a mountain of pig waste 150 metres long, four metres high and 50 metres wide. ‘Seventeen thousand pigs for six months,’ a young man said, nodding at the pile. Local authorities have been ordering Smithfield to move the illegal pile for six months, but the company has refused.

The night before our visit Smithfield covered its pile with a giant black tarpaulin, which was already inflated and writhing with the internal pressure of methane gas. Half a mile downhill from the pile, villagers had created a public beach on a 1,500-acre lake where umbrellas shaded dozens of families swimming and playing on a steamy 90º day. Manure residues festered on the shores of a nearby bay into which Smithfield’s waste pile drains. An old man with twinkling blue eyes stuck his hand into the water, smelled his fingers and offered us a whiff. ‘Smithfield Foods,’ he announced.

Governor Nowakowski told us that there is another Smithfield factory, in Sedziny, that has 4,500 pigs but a permit for only 1,000 cows. He said his assistants were now inspecting the facility. ‘But,’ he explained, ‘the legislation is very difficult for the local government to enforce [without state support].’ Unfortunately, the federal government is not supporting the Wielkopolska authorities. Nowakowski is not the only local politician begging for federal help. Zofia Wilczynska is a deputy in the Sejm, the lower houes of Poland’s national parliament. Wilczynska has complained to the federal government that a Smithfield operation in Polczyn Zdroj is endangering the northern Polish town’s 400-year-old health spa. Right over by Poland’s northeastern border with the Russian Federation enclave of Kaliningrad (former East Prussia) another health spa, in Goldap, is also threatened by pollution and odours from a Smithfield site.

The day after our visit to Wieckowice, a member of a parliamentary agriculture committee told us that the Polish government had recently conducted an investigation of 16 Smithfield farms (14 owned by the corporation and two owned by front groups it controlled). The agricultural ministry found that every one of the farms had broken Poland’s veterinary, health and construction laws. Yet when Smithfield lacks proper permits, or is caught breaking the law, it is fined, laughably, just a few hundred dollars. Sometimes Smithfield just buys officials off. A hundred miles north of Wieckowice, the mayor of the Western Pomeranian village Wierzchowo gave Smithfield permits for two enormous farms after the company paid his wife approximately $4,000 to perform the environmental impact assessment.

Local communities devastated

The economic impacts of Smithfield’s production methods are devastating local communities and markets. When Smithfield took over Animex, the latter’s three principal farms near Goldap employed 60 employees. Following the farms’ conversion to automated pig factories, only seven of these workers remain. Smithfield says it wants to produce 6 million pigs in Poland each year. Polish peasants currently rear 20 million pigs per year, and a quarter of them will have to lose their livelihoods to make way for Smithfield. The corporation is already squeezing the small farms. In Western Pomerania we found that the region’s small slaughterhouses had already been closed, and that the remaining Smithfield-owned slaughterhouse would not slaughter pigs from small farms.

The same will soon apply to the rest of Poland. Once Smithfield controls the slaughterhouses and has eliminated local markets, it will be able to control prices and, ultimately, the farms. Avoiding the monoculture in Poland instead of reinventing itself to mimic the failed systems in Europe and the US, Poland should celebrate its assets and sell them to the world. Polish meat tastes much better than factory meat. Polish sausage is world famous. Consumers like knowing that their meat is from animals that were humanely raised in ways that are good for the environment, supportive of family farms, and free of dangerous hormones, antibiotics and chemicals. But all these things make quality meat more expensive than factory meat. And when the consumer sees free-range pork that does not look much different to a Smithfield cut, they will choose the cheaper product. The answer is branding.

When Europe opens its markets to Poland, the Poles should establish a market for their produce by using branding to draw attention to their traditional values. The AWI has offered the Polish government to help brand the country’s pork internationally. The institute specialises in helping small farmers by finding consumers who are willing to pay a premium for produce that is healthy and raised humanely and without the use of antibiotics and hormones. Anybody who pays a premium for Polish meat will be getting a good deal. Some of the meat and sausage that we gorged on in Poland was among the best we’ve tasted. Pork of the kind produced by traditional Polish farms is widely recognised to be tastier and juicier than confinement pork of the sort produced by Smithfield.

If Poland is going to flourish rather than flounder, the nation needs to recognise its enormous strengths and start believing in itself. The words ‘produced in Poland’ should become a standard for high quality. This is no easy challenge. But the easy way out, signing a contract with Smithfield, is not the solution.

A last bastion of tradition in Poland

Poland is an oasis of traditional farming in a world dominated by agribusiness multinationals. Around 2 million Poles, about 18 per cent of the country’s population, are farmers or members of farming families. That’s as many as the rest of central Europe put together. The Polish landscape is not yet marked by the vast monocultures of row crops that are typical of the US. Currently, Poland is a country of picturesque farm villages, with farms that average five hectares and modest homes of wood, timber and fieldstone.

Typically, each farmer has a horse, a couple of cows and some pigs and chickens. Animals are raised free range and humanely. And Polish farmers rotate a variety of crops in the traditional way that fosters healthy soils. Many Polish farmhouses still have occupied stork nests on their roofs. The country hosts 25 per cent of the world’s white stork population – some 50,000 pairs – more than the whole of western Europe combined. Elsewhere in the continent the bird has been exterminated by modern agriculture practices: liquid manure and pesticides effectively wipe out the fish, frogs, crabs and insects that storks eat.

In Denmark, for example, there are only six pairs left. Poland has large stands of timber as well as the last sanctuaries of European bison and Europe’s last clean-flowing unregulated rivers. It has purer soils than anywhere else in Europe.

Robert Kennedy Jr is the president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international grassroots coalition dedicated to protecting water systems from pollution; Tracy Worcester is the associate director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (, a non-profit organisation that aims to protect cultural and biological diversity.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2003