News - November 18, 2010

Intensive farming: where to go from here

Intensive livestock farming in the Netherlands has come under fire. No-one wants to take charge of the problems. Everyone passes the buck. New coalitions could be the answer to this deadlock. Wageningen researchers, too, have to broaden their horizons.

A petition from the Nijmegen professor of psychology Roos Vonk brought the issue into focus early this year. More than two hundred professors signed her complaint against intensive livestock farming, which concluded, among other standpoints, that it is 'time to consider the fundamentals of our livestock industry'. Was that a major turning point? Not so, according to Hans Huijbers of agricultural organization ZLTO, who says that much was already being done about the issue before it was taken up by Vonk. 'Also early this year, Wageningen researchers and stakeholders from the sector came together to develop environment and animal friendly barn concepts for pigs.' A 'nice piece of work', comments Huijbers. But its results were hardly noticeable in the midst of media frenzy sparked off by the emotive charges in Vonk's petition.
Huijbers says that such emotions are typical of these discussions. He claims that he has many arguments that intensive livestock farming is better than extensive agriculture. 'But it's difficult to talk to someone who, based on emotions and gut feelings, says: I don't want it. What can we do about this?'

System is stuck
Emotion triumphs over rational considerations. Policies are determined by gut feelings. Are such charges justified? Cees Leeuwis does not think so. This professor of Communication and Innovation Studies and co-signatory of the petition says it is highly unfortunate that the term 'emotion' is used in this context. 'To brush off counter arguments as being emotional is like retreating into your own shell. It's not irrational to think differently; it's looking at the same reality from other points of view and thus arriving at other evaluations.'
Intensive livestock farming is an area where technical-economic concepts are dominant, says Leeuwis. 'It's a system that has become stuck. Not only two hundred professors, but also people such as Herman Wijffels and Cees Veerman are saying this.' We know the problems: environmental pollution, animal welfare, antibiotics use and low margins in the global market have led to economies of scale and intensification. There seems to be a coordinated denial of responsibility in this system, Leeuwis feels. 'The government leaves it to market forces. Farmers and supermarkets point their fingers at consumers who like to buy products from afar, and the population feels that the government should do something about the situation. Everyone passes the buck.'
Alliance of former enemies
Yes, pointing fingers is all too easy, says Marc Jansen, Director of Consumer Affairs and Quality at the Dutch Food Retail Association (CBL), the professional organization for supermarkets. 'Community organizations confront us, supermarkets say that farmers are responsible, farmers say that it costs money, while the government - apprehensive of yet more regulations - says that the chain parties have to take the issue up. The last is fine, but the government shouldn't be pointing a finger at the others afterwards in an impatient and didactic way.'
The result: no-one has come forward to take the lead in managing intensive livestock farming. Supermarkets have to direct the chain out of necessity. This is often unfair, says Jansen who feels that Friesland Campina should take the lead in the dairy sector, and the VION food group would be the obvious leader in the meat sector. VION, however, points to market leader Albert Heijn. As none of these parties can wrest anything out of the others, new coalitions could be beneficial. Albert Heijn and VION have jointly formed an 'intermediate segment' for meat, setting down environment and animal welfare requirements midway between those in normal and in organic production. The Society for the Protection of Animals has also endorsed this intermediate segment.
Even former enemies are coming together to discuss issues of mutual interest. 'Wakker Dier is our best partner in the area of animal welfare', says farming foreman Huijbers at the beginning of November to the Agrarisch Dagblad in a talk with campaign leader Sjerd van der Wouw of Wakker Dier (animal organization). Both want to tackle animal welfare by influencing buying behaviour, with the consumer paying for the additional costs. 'Wakker Dier is the first to declare that the farmer should not be the only one to be blamed', says Huijbers. Van der Wouw adds: 'We are critical of the system. Supermarkets have to turn towards quality.' In the meantime, Marc Jansen too sees possibilities in working with Wakker Dier. 'We have a common aim: improving animal welfare', he tells Agrarisch Dagblad.
Lack of trust
The question now is whether it is enough for livestock farms to optimize the current system, or if the intensive production system should be written off entirely. It wouldn't be surprising if this does happen, say those in the know. 'Although we keep coming up with innovations and technology, we can't win the social debate anymore', says Dirk Duijzer of Rabobank at the beginning of this month during a Dutch Zootechnics Society congress. 'If we tell our side of the story, the public often responds with disbelief.' Farming foreman Huijbers agrees. 'I cannot use rational arguments to explain to a critic that intensive livestock farming is better. I'd lose such a debate.'
The livestock farming sector itself has to deal with a lack of trust, says Jan Staman. He is the director of the Rathenau Institute, an organization involved in the social consequences of science and technology. Staman: 'As long as there is trust, a system can be optimized. If trust is lacking, optimization won't work anymore. Look at what happened in Brabant. The Q Fever outbreak and the increase of resistance to antibiotics have led the provincial government to decide: no more mega-sheds. Hospitals sent its own message to the public, an unprecedented move. There was a code of confidentiality with the farmers in Brabant, but that has been undermined.'
The criticisms on livestock farming are directed at its economies of scale and intensification, says Staman. 'But the last thing you need is to open up a can of researchers who all want to explain the situation. It's better not to do that because that will strengthen the critics' opinion that nothing works. The sector has to stop sending out messages. Just focus on: who is this someone who makes criticisms? Look for this person, listen to him and accept the criticisms. And then propose to do something about the situation.'
Animal protection society versus emission requirements
The Animal Sciences Group (ASG) of Wageningen UR has found itself in a tricky position. On one hand, it is involved in the Rondeel: the flagship in livestock farming innovation. This animal friendly chicken coop for laying hens has been developed by Wageningen researchers in cooperation with community organizations. The first Rondeel coop was built by an innovative poultry farmer earlier this year; the second is under construction. Rondeel eggs are sold at higher prices by Albert Heijn, with certification from Milieukeur (environment) and three stars from the Society for the Protection of Animals. 'In the past, Wageningen barn concepts often failed because they were not part of the social-economic world', says Cees Leeuwis. 'The Rondeel is successful perhaps because it's the result of a new coalition.'
Meanwhile, ASG researchers are also defending the current intensive and large-scale livestock farms on rational grounds. Last summer, livestock farming professors argued in the NRC newspaper that technical innovations can make livestock farming competitive, as well as environment and animal friendly, with almost no antibiotics. To keep feeding the world's population, livestock production would have to double while the ecological footprint has to be halved, said Wageningen UR when it presented its market segment 'Agro production in the 21 st   Century.' This can only be achieved by having an uttermost efficient and intensive production method.
What complicates matters is that there isn't any system that can solve all these problems, says Imke de Boer of the Animal Production Systems Group, who has produced a life cycle analysis of production systems. According to her, better animal welfare would lead to more land being used and higher emissions into the environment. Furthermore, the recently banned laying battery in the poultry sector is relatively better for the climate than the incense-filled Rondeel barn. 'We aren't sending out a uniform message', says De Boer. 'We should concentrate on how to pass on the various aspects of sustainability.'
But here too, there is no agreement among the community organizations. Environmental groups have requirements different from those of Wakker Dier, the Animal Protection Society and Varkens in Nood; opinions are further divided within these groups.
Innovation by cooperation
In the meantime, many intensive livestock farmers find themselves wedged among goals, municipal permits and apprehensive neighbours. 'Acceptance by the surrounding is a major aspect of a sustainable livestock farm', says Huijbers. 'Farmers with neighbours. Livestock farmers have to get their neighbours involved in their plans and explain their intentions.' This requires a big culture change in the livestock farming sector: it takes more than getting a permit and satisfying the minimal legal requirements.
'The population does not know what are the technological developments in livestock farming in the last twenty years', says Imke de Boer. Wageningen UR could accept some blame for this. Marc Jansen of the supermarkets has little to do with polarizing and technophobic NGOs. But he also adds: 'Wageningen livestock farmers are hardly outward looking, just like the Business Economics Group in which I was educated. That too focuses too much on the farmers and too little on the consumers and the population.' If Wageningen UR wants to help find a solution, it has to change, says Cees Leeuwis. 'By coming out of your corner, you can create new coalitions. That will bring about innovation.'