US pig farmer raises almighty stink with invasion of Poland's countryside

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The metal hangar juts into the autumnal mist - a 21st century blot on the otherwise medieval landscape of rural western Poland. The barbed wire and watchman indicate a military base, but the stench and the squealing could only come from pigs, thousands of them, packed into this corrugated iron factory.

The village of Wieckowice is the latest outpost in a latter-day invasion of Poland, led by the world's largest pork production company which threatens to destroy Europe's last bastion of traditional farming. Moreover, it's doing so with EU money.

Smithfield Foods, based in Virginia, has made millions in the US by industrialising farming, creating hog factories holding tens of thousands of pigs. The consequences for the environment, independent farmers and rural communities from North Carolina to Iowa have been catastrophic.

According to the US Senator Robert Kennedy Jnr, what is at stake is impossible to exaggerate. "Factory farms are more dangerous for our lifestyle and democracy than Osama bin Laden and global terrorism," he said. Now Smithfields has forged a bridgehead in Europe and Joseph W Luter III, the company's chief executive, boasts that he will turn the former communist country on the brink of full EU membership into the "Iowa of Europe". In Iowa there are five times as many pigs as people living in the rural state, 14 million in total, and local anger at the mega-farms is dominating the Democratic Party primaries. They are angry for the same reason that the windows in Wieckowice's school are never opened: the smell.

"The stench got so bad that they couldn't open the windows of the school," says local activist Jurek Dusczynski. "The bus drivers refuse to stop here." People who live near the factory farms complain of nausea, asthma attacks and blackouts. Children at the school village began vomiting. Activists point to US studies which they claim show that factory farm workers and their neighbours contract lung disease, eye infections, nosebleeds and gastro intestinal illness.

Hogs produce up to ten times the amount of waste as the average human. This waste is a cocktail of up to 400 dangerous substances, including heavy metals, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and dozens of disease-causing viruses and microbes. If this finds its way into nearby rivers or seeps into the water table the results are dramatic. "Everywhere this company has operated, there has been gross environmental degradation from liquefied hog faeces," says Tom Garrett, an ecologist from Wyoming and a long-time opponent of Smithfield who has tracked his adversary from the pork-belt in America to Poland. In 1997, Smithfield paid $12.6m in penalties under the US Clean Water Act.

The shock for Poland's traditional farmers is nothing compared with the misery experienced by the pigs, crammed into pens often so narrow that they cannot turn around. Noise levels can reach 95 decibels and the ventilation system must run constantly or the animals would asphyxiate. Overcrowding at Wieckowice this year led to the premature deaths of hundreds of pigs whose carcasses were dumped outside until a local protest forced a clean-up. The inheritor of a pig dynasty, Mr Luter pioneered the vertically integrated production system, or "piglets to pork chops" as he describes it. The company bought up thousands of farms and meat-packing facilities and signed farmers to exclusive contracts. His farms produce 12 million nearly identical genetically engineered "superlean" hogs annually.

Poland's modernisation will follow the same script as North Carolina, the country's second largest hog producer, according to the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international grassroots ecological organisation. Two decades ago there were an estimated 27,000 family farms in the state. Today, 2,200 farms remain, most of them hog factories of the kind pioneered by Mr Luter. Employment prospects are as lean as a Smithfield pig, with only two people needed to tend 10,000 swine.

A populist David to Mr Luter's corporate Goliath has emerged in the form of Andrzej Lepper, leader of the Euro-sceptic Samoobrona party. A tour of the mega-farms of the American Midwest was enough to convince Mr Lepper, a former wrestler and the son of a pig farmer, that Smithfields must be stopped. "We are not going to allow Smithfield factories to exist in Poland, even if we have to blockade the entire country," he told North Carolina farmers.

Under Polish law it is forbidden for foreign multinationals to buy up former state farms but Smithfield bypassed this using local front companies. Through the wholly-owned subsidiaries Animex and Prima Farms the $5bn (£2.96bn) US giant gained control of over 30 large, former state farms and had already converted many of them into hog factories. The buy-up cost $50m, despite the Polish government spending hundreds of millions of dollars pre-sale. Mr Luter was so delighted that he told investors he had paid just "ten cents on the dollar". Thanks to a $100m loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), one of America's richest companies did not even have to pay that.

Robert Cyglicki, from the Polish division of the international monitor Bankwatch, said it was a scandal that the EBRD handed out an EU-subsidised loan with no control over how the money would be spent.

"Bank representatives claim that they were assured by the borrower that the money would not used for building new industrial hog farms but they could not dictate how the loan would be used and that's where the money went," Mr Cyglicki told The Independent.

"The role of the EBRD is especially important, since it claims to follow an environmental mandate, and its participation may give the appearance that industrial hog businesses are not ecologically harmful."