News - September 13, 2012

Dijkhuizen does it his way

There are many different views in Wageningen on global food production. Wageningen's Executive Board chairman aired his particular view in Trouw newspaper. Was that wise?

You can't deny Dijkhuizen has guts. Public opinion is against battery chickens and wants nothing to do with mega-barns, whatever the potential advantages might be. So he knew his plea would provoke fierce opposition. Sure enough, the opposition came, including from people within his own organization, but he also set a debate going about intensive farming.
Dijkhuizen is not alone; emeritus professor Rudy Rabbinge has also been claiming for years, albeit in more nuanced terms, that intensive farming is productive and good for the environment. But Dijkhuizen's persistence (he e-mailed Trouw following comments about battery hens) means the message has now hit the headlines, from the TV news programmes to Foodlog and farming journal De Boerderij.
The Wageningen board chairman does have a point. Studies by LEI and livestock professor Imke de Boer show that Dutch livestock farmers use less land and feed and produce fewer CO 2 emissions per kilo of meat than Brazilian farmers or organic farmers. These are the facts. But Dijkhuizen goes one step further: he gives global food production higher priority than animal welfare. That's a value judgement. This may be his personal opinion but he seems to have forgotten that he is the public face of an organization in which many people hold very different views.
For Wageningen UR actually has a lot of researchers who are working for a world with less meat and for an improvement in animal welfare. That is why many feel alienated by his views and the image he has created, consciously or inadvertently, of Wageningen UR. In that regard, Dijkhuizen would have done better to emphasize that this is still a matter for research and debates, including within his own organization.
The freedom Dijkhuizen has allowed himself is striking. When Wageningen professors signed a petition protesting against intensive livestock farming in 2010, he accused them of abusing their position as professors: after all, they were not all specialized in livestock farming.  Apparently, that 'cobbler, stick to your trade' message doesn't apply to the chairman himself.