As meat production figures in Poland continue to soar, animal rights campaigners are calling on politicians and consumers to raise the bar for the poultry farming sector.
The numbers are staggering.
According to Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the total number of livestock in the world in 2018 was an estimated 30.6 billion animals – four times as many as the species they were bred for. This amounted to around 60 per cent of the entire mammal biomass on Earth.
In addition, more than 60 billion chickens are bred and killed for human consumption every year.
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In Poland, the annual meat intake per person has shot up from 47 kilogrammes half a century ago to more than 80 kilogrammes today.
Over the last two decades, the country has seen a major spike in the number of factory farms. Last year, there were nearly 1,400 industrial poultry farms in Poland, each of them housing at least 40,000 chickens in what animal welfare groups describe as inhumane conditions.
“Poland is the largest producer of poultry in the European Union, but that’s hardly anything we should be proud of,” says Marta Gregorczyk, animal welfare expert at Greenpeace Poland.
“Chickens never see the light of day during their compressed lifespans. They spend their entire lives locked up in huge sheds, and they are kept in a tight squeeze throughout,” she tells Emerging Europe.
According to Monika Kowalska, an activist at Stowarzyszenie Otwarte Klatki (Open Cages Association), one of the main reasons behind the plight of such animals is that modern poultry farming relies on fast-growing breeds.
“These breeds have been modified genetically so that chickens gain weight as quickly as this is possible. By the end of their short, six-week lives, chickens can weigh up to 2.5 kilogrammes,” Kowalska tells us.
“To put this in a perspective, imagine a five-year-old child weighing 150 kilogrammes,” adds her colleague, Maria Madej.
In global terms, intensive animal farming is also an ever-greater threat for the environment.
“Animal faeces contaminate groundwater and soil around the world. To produce mass quantities of soy animal feed, we clear large swaths of the Amazon rainforest,” says Marta Gregorczyk.
“We also stuff farm animals with antibiotics and as a result, antibiotics cease to be effective in humans,” she adds.
As per United Nations estimates, by 2050 the global demand for meat will rise by another 200 per cent. To satisfy the growing appetite, the number of industrial farms will need to skyrocket to even greater heights.
Meanwhile, the consensus among scientists is that animal husbandry is one of the greatest contributors to the ongoing climate change.
According to FAO, the sector is globally responsible for between 14.5 and 18 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions – more than the entire transportation industry.
“Industrial breeding of animals fuels the climate crisis and endangers our health. That’s the hidden price we all pay for cheap meat in our shops,” Gregorczyk says.
Ask a hen what it’s like
There are some, however, who think that animal welfare organisations are biased against the poultry industry in Poland, and that the actual situation is not as bad as these groups claim.
“All European standards of animal farming in Poland are met,” says Katarzyna Markowska, editor-in-chief of Hodowca Drobiu (The Poultry Farmer).
“Factory farms are regularly controlled by state veterinary officers. The cases shown in the media by the so-called pro-animal groups are blown out of proportion to play on people’s heartstrings,” Markowska tells us.
“Mistreating poultry just doesn’t make economic sense. In bad conditions, poultry would not be able to show its full productive potential,” Markowska adds.
Asked what life may be like for a caged layer hen, Henryk Kowalczyk, Poland’s agriculture minister deflected the question to a better source of information.
“Why don’t you just ask the hen? Maybe it can explain what it’s like to live in a cage,” Kowalczyk answered. “It doesn’t know any other life so I don’t suppose it goes through any special mental struggles because of this.”
According to animal welfare organisation Klub Gaja, around 40 million layers are now bred in Poland, with 87 per cent of them kept in cages. The average space per hen is slightly larger than an A4 sheet of paper.
We asked more than a dozen of Poland’s largest poultry farms for comment. All our queries were met with silence.
A slither of hope
And yet, according to Monika Kowalska, there is some hope that things may start to turn the corner before long. Retailers are certainly taking note of changing consumer habits, with chains such as Żabka, which has more than 7,000 stores across Poland, announcing on April 1 that it has prepared a plan to completely eliminate cage eggs by no later than 2025.
“In the meantime, we will work to increase the share of barn and free-range eggs in total sales,” said Żabka in a statement.
“Polish consumers are making more and more informed shopping decisions, and they have finally started paying attention to the conditions animals are bred in,” Kowalska claims.
“One of the ways the international community has been trying to mend the situation is the European Chicken Commitment (ECC), a document outlining basic livestock welfare requirements. As soon as it is signed and implemented by poultry farms across Poland, the lives of chickens at such places will improve substantially.”
“All of this goes to say that if poultry farmers want to keep their sales at high levels, they ought to start thinking about raising the animal welfare standards at their farms,” Kowalska concludes.
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