News - May 17, 2010

Livestock farming: Time to clean out the barn?

Broer Scholtens

Reform intensive livestock farming! This plea comes from more than two hundred professors who signed the petition 'Appeal for sustainable livestock farming - down with organized irresponsibility'. Twenty five of the signatories are from Wageningen UR. Are they right?

Peter de Ruiter, professor of soil sciences, a signatory on the petition against intensive livestock farming
'In 2001, the broad-based Wijffels commission said in its advice that intensive livestock farming couldn't fit into an urban society anymore. Livestock farming had to be radically changed because animals deserve more space to behave naturally, such as roaming about outdoors. The transportation of living animals had to be limited, said another recommendation. Too little had been done about these recommendations. To me, improvement of animal welfare is a big thing.
'In intensive livestock farming, much animal feed has to be brought in from elsewhere, which affects the environment there, whereas we have to put up with an enormous oversupply of manure. I am not against progress, such as mega farms, if they result in more sustainable livestock farming. The petition is not a protest against farmers; it's a call to the politicians to deal seriously with the resolutions concerning sustainable livestock farming.'

Martin Scholten, Director of the Animal Sciences Group and founder of the Wageningen UR task force 'Considerate livestock farming'
'I have invited the Wageningen signatories of the petition for a debate at the end of May. There are certainly problems in intensive livestock farming. Excessive use of antibiotics, for example, although that's not intrinsically linked to the notion of intensive. Nowadays, antibiotics are used mainly as a preventive measure. That's not necessary. Antibiotics use can be cut down, but you need to ensure that the chances of infection are low. We agree basically with the critics but the reforms in their proposal have not been thoroughly thought through. Compare this to the trawl, a net used in the fishing industry. There were calls to ban this. Protests were not against the trawl per se but its uncontrolled use. A cautious trawling industry has now been generally accepted. The same should be done about intensive livestock farming. The ecological footprint of Dutch livestock farming is one of the smallest in the world. The highest productivity per animal and per hectare has been achieved with minimum discharge of harmful substances. The pressure on the environment has gone down by a factor of three in the last twenty years in the areas of water, land and energy use. It's a pity that animals still have to adjust to the notion of a cage and not the other way round. But barn systems have been developed to improve animal welfare, such as free range barns for cows and comfort pens for pigs.'

Mart de Jong, professor of veterinary epidemiology, member of the task force 'Considerate livestock farming'
'The idea that intensive livestock farming will endanger public health is ungrounded. Infectious diseases in both humans and animals change constantly in character. This process of change takes place rapidly and is a fact of evolution. You have to watch these changes and take measures to combat diseases when necessary. This is what's happening with Q-Fever in the goat farms. Steps have been taken. In fact, intensive livestock farming makes it possible for diseases to be dealt with, because they become more manageable. An example is the halt to the spread of the salmonella enteritidis bacteria which caused food poisoning among humans, thanks to effective control within livestock farms. 'Antibiotic use in livestock farms should of course be cut down, but it's nonsense to blame antibiotics use in livestock for antibiotic resistance in humans. The latter is caused by excessive antibiotics use in humans, which point to the tendency of doctors to over prescribe. As far as this aspect is concerned, the Netherlands isn't even in the picture since antibiotics resistance is in fact low here. Doctors here are not generous concerning antibiotics, compared with other countries.'

Frank Berendse, professor of nature management and plant ecology, one of the signatories of the petition
'It's a shame that the initiative for a manifestation against intensive livestock farming is made in Nijmegen at the Radboud University and not in Wageningen. Initially, the petition was signed by just fifteen Wageningen professors. I am glad that another ten have joined in the past weeks. I have been researching for thirty years into the effects of atmospheric deposition of ammonia from manure into the Dutch nature. The consequences of the acidified deposits have been sensational; we have lost a major part of the Dutch flora. While nitrogen contamination has been reduced somewhat, this reduction is still too small. For me, it is as clear as day that these problems can only be solved by a drastic reduction of the number of farm animals. Currently, the Netherlands exports most of the meat produced at extremely low prices, while we have to face the consequences for public health, nature and environment; prices do not take these aspects into account. I am shocked by the reaction of the Animal Sciences group (ASG) in Trouw. That amounts to saying that we should just toe the line set down a long time ago. It's high time for a major cultural reform, so that we will become a university not only for the farmers, but also for the entire society.'

Johan van Arendonk, professor in animal breeding and genetics 
'I support the petitioners' viewpoint concerning the need for change in livestock farming. However, I feel that a reform of intensive livestock farming, as advocated, is not the solution. The solution in fact lies in further intensifying livestock farming.
Food production has to be increased in the coming years to feed the growing world population, according to the world food organization FAO. This is an enormous challenge since the ability of our planet to sustain us has already been exceeded now. This calls for livestock farming which can efficiently convert raw materials into food for humans. The Netherlands is one of the leaders in efficiency. Intensive livestock farming offers the best chance to produce enough food, while also reducing the ecological footprint. This also includes prevention of animal diseases, removal of public health risks and maximum animal welfare. Hopes are high that technological breakthroughs can give better support to livestock farmers. It's a matter of having the right balance.'