Poultry crisis in Poland: almost 18 million birds dead

Since the beginning of this year, 333 cases of highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza have been detected on poultry farms in Poland.

This infectious viral disease is currently attacking flocks throughout almost all of Poland. The problem is most serious in the Wielkopolskie and Mazowieckie voivodships, where in just two districts – Żuromiński and Mławski – there are as many as 605 farms where approximately 75-80 million animals are kept. By decree of the Mazowieckie Voivode, most of these herds – both infected and healthy ones – were intended to be culled. The crisis faced by the Polish poultry industry poses serious questions about the agenda behind continuing and supporting factory farming.

Hen flock culling on a factory farm in Żuromin district (April, 2021) Photo: Andrew Skowron

Recent weeks have clearly shown that the crisis we are dealing with is the result of many years of neglect and unpreparedness of institutions and services for the scale of the problem – as if the growing concentration of farms every year and the enormous scale of production were unknown or simply irrelevant. It is precisely due to the volume of domestic production, of which as much as 50% is exported, that the problem with culling of infected flocks is so serious. Throughout the last few weeks, we have been facing shortages of veterinary staff, people to work on the culling of infected flocks, and even gas reserves to kill birds, rendering it impossible to effectively manage the crisis. Disposal companies have not kept up with the collection and burning of dead birds. It has turned out that the country does not have a sufficient number of rendering plants, and obviously the few farms equipped with furnaces for burning dead birds’ bodies are not designed to deal with culling entire flocks.

Was the situation at hand unforeseeable? Since 2006, parliamentary questions on the matter have been addressed to the Ministry of Agriculture. Attention was drawn to the recurring problem of avian influenza: an insufficient number of rendering plants and incinerators, huge outlays for fighting the epidemic, and costly compensation for farmers and producers. The problem recurred annually and the same questions were put forward to the ministry each year. Only one thing changed – the number of farms. It grew.

Concentration of factory poultry farms in Żuromin (2020) 

Poland reached the level necessary to secure the local market a long time ago. Poland exceeded it twice, directing 50% of production to export. Despite this, there is still no end to the expansion of factory farms, nor are regulations in place that would limit this expansion. The first drafts of the so-called “Distance Act” and “Odour Act” were drawn up several years ago. They were to protect residents of rural areas from the nuisance of living in close proximity to factory farms – potentially hazardous to human health. The farms are also responsible for lowering quality of life and a fall in real estate and land prices, as well as posing a serious threat to the environment. Unfortunately, despite the public debate on the subject that has been going on for years, none of these laws have entered legislation to date.

Local community protests have also failed to convince authorities of the necessity to introduce such laws. One gets the impression that the lobby representing meat and egg producers is so strong in Poland that the public’s voice is simply irrelevant to politicians. (To be fair, this is not only the case with the current ruling party.)

Local community protest against building a factory farm (Blizanów, July 2020)

Between 2009 and 2019, there were at least 841 protests against factory farms in Poland. This represents just a small fraction of the total number of protests, estimated on the basis of responses from the municipal offices. Protesting local communities that succeeded in blocking the building of factory farms had to count primarily on themselves – not on the government or laws protecting their health and interests. In the best case scenario, they could count on the help of local authorities who, in the interests of the community, would not bow to the investor, and either refused to grant permission to build a farm or passed a local spatial development plan for the commune rendering the building of such facilities impossible. This strategy was chosen by, among others, Aneta Goliat, the mayor of Żuromin, an area considered a phenomenon on a European scale in terms of factory farm concentration. When Aneta Goliat took the position in 2014 after winning the elections, she began to introduce multiple spatial development plans that eventually prevented the construction of at least 100 such facilities in Żuromin district. Had it not been for her determination to fight factory farms, the scale of today’s crisis in Żuromin would have been even worse. In many communes in Poland, local authorities follow the same strategy to prevent a higher concentration of farms.

Conversation with Aneta Goliat, mayor of Żuromin (May, 2021) 

Paradoxically, it was local authorities and residents who faced criticism when the avian influenza crisis broke out this year. The inefficiency of rendering plants caused an epidemiological threat. Dead birds piled up on farms for weeks where they would decompose at high temperatures, so the government decided to bury the dead animals wherever it was possible. This was met with immediate resistance from the local communities and authorities. They feared that such a large number of dead animals would pose a major epidemiological threat to their neighbourhood. It is important to note that landowners who wanted to allocate their land for this purpose asked to waive the requirement to prepare an environmental impact report, and in at least one case the Regional Directorate for Environmental Protection agreed to such a request.

Local community blocking the burying of dead birds near their homes (May, 2021)

After several weeks of protests from residents, the Head Veterinary Inspection decided to create more places for storing dead birds – throughout the country – but on a smaller scale. Referring to the problem of finding one place where all the birds from the areas with high concentrations of poultry farms could be buried, the Mazowieckie Voivode and the Minister of Agriculture pointed out that local authorities issue permissions to build farms, so they are responsible for the scale of the current problem and should cooperate and not “support the protests of residents”. This is not entirely true, as local authorities are not always able to limit farm expansion. Only 30% of the country is covered by so-called local spatial development plans. Their introduction is costly and time-consuming. The government (which has not introduced any regulation regarding the emergence of factory farming) blaming local authorities for the scale of the problem is simply a case of hypocrisy and a desperate attempt to find a scapegoat.

Speaking of scapegoats, in mid-May the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development held a meeting devoted to this year’s avian influenza epidemic. Due to the poor management of the crisis, the Chief Veterinary Officer was dismissed. This was another questionable decision because the veterinary profession in Poland has been drowning in crises for years – there is a shortage of staff, employees are poorly paid, and consequently few graduates choose this career path. Those attempting to extinguish the epidemic face long workdays in extremely difficult conditions. Before his resignation, the Chief Veterinary Officer was one of the only representatives of governmental institutions that recognised that one of the main factors responsible for the scale of the epidemic was the high concentration of farms in many regions of Poland. However this perspective was not shared by the Minister of Agriculture; in the bird flu commission it was suggested that the culprits were mainly weather conditions and wild birds, as well as small farms with poor biosecurity.

Transport of broiler chickens to a slaughterhouse (Poland, 2020) Photo: Konrad Lozinski

This leads us to conclude that there is no indication that radical change or even rational solutions will be implemented in Poland in the near future to prevent another epidemic. What we can expect is the further disappearance of small, traditional farms, which will be replaced by large industrial ones. A natural reaction to what is currently happening on Polish poultry farms would be an immediate decision to stop issuing further permits for building factory farms, at least in the areas with the highest concentration of farms, and to prepare a plan to gradually reduce the number of farms in the coming years.

In addition to introducing a ban on building new farms while assessing the effects of this year’s epidemic and a plan to deconcentrate farms in areas of their highest density, the government should adopt regulations to limit building new facilities. When a virus is detected on a farm, a protection zone is created within a radius of three kilometres. This area is the most likely affected by the further spread of the virus. The “Distance Act”, which was to protect rural residents from the odour of factory farms, should therefore also require that holdings be located at least three kilometers apart. This would limit the possibility of the virus spreading to other flocks. These arguments were made by politicians of the opposition during the press conference organized by the Social Coalition Stop Factory Farms on May 18, before the meeting of the Committee of Agriculture and Rural Development. Unfortunately, they were not reflected in any statement from the Minister of Agriculture or the new Chief of Veterinary Inspection.

Hen flock culling on a factory farm in Żuromin district (April, 2021) Photo: Andrew Skowron

In Poland, bird flu is not uncommon. It breaks out every year, only at different scales. In 2007 and 2008 there was already talk of serious problems and the most severely affected areas of ​​Żuromin and Mława were almost completely paralyzed. In a recent address, the Minister of Agriculture, Grzegorz Puda, tried to downplay this year’s crisis by noting that there were also virus outbreaks in France and Germany. Considering the scale of the avian influenza epidemic and the costs associated with it, can we still honestly talk about “cheap meat”, support its production and celebrate “the success of Polish poultry”? Are we the “poultry power of Europe” or a reservoir of viruses, or at best a pasture for Europe?

Threats that today remain blind spots in the eyes of ruling politicians (enchanted by the narrative of the success of Polish meat and egg production) may soon force a radical change in the model of food production. On the topic of viruses infecting animals on poultry, mink or pig farms, animal rights and environmental organizations talk about the enormous suffering of animals, while people living in close proximity to these farms warn of the epidemiological threat of burying millions of dead birds. Farmers, of course, focus on compensation. And politicians? For now they pretend that, though the situation is serious, everything is under control.

The gradual transformation of agriculture into an industry that is taking place in Poland and other countries — the creation of areas with a high concentration of farms where identical animals live in unnatural densities — creates perfect conditions for future pandemics. The classic film by Mathieu Kassovitz opens with an anecdote that allegorically illustrates our situation and the perspective of our politicians: “Have you heard about the man who fell from a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: “So far so good… so far so good…””

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