Organisation - June 10, 2010

Redesign livestock farming

One or two Wageningen professors are rejecting intensive livestock farming while others are actively advocating it. But exchanging facts and opinions via the newspapers is not enough. If you keep to the facts, you'll miss the boat. Time for a joint innovation project.

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Analysis
'Let's keep to the facts', said discussion leader Prof. Herman Eijsackers during the internal debate on intensive livestock farming held at Wageningen UR on 27 May. The Wageningen animal scientists presented their facts about intensive livestock farming in the context of world food production. We are going to have to feed a lot more mouths at much less cost to the environment. In such circumstances intensive livestock farming is our best option.
But this fact cannot counter the growing unease about intensive livestock farming in the Netherlands. Livestock farmers are not seeing any sign of imminent food shortages. Instead, they are having to deal with low meat prices, making it difficult for them to make the necessary investments in the environment. Dutch consumers also have more than enough food. And after years of indifference to intensive livestock farming, outbreaks of disease and culls of millions of farm animals have made them think twice. Now there are animal diseases that can also spread to humans, such as Q fever and MRSA. These are facts about society. A petition against the mega-barns in the province of Noord-Brabant, which always used to be so amenable to farmers, collected more than 33 thousand signatures last year.
What is more, intensive livestock farming still has a manure problem and people don't like having a pig farm or chicken farm next to where they live - as is demonstrated by the incidental protests against agricultural development areas in the Netherlands. So there is also a rural planning problem. The licence to produce is at issue here. Wageningen has developed environmentally-friendly, animal-friendly stalls for pigs and chickens but it has not come up with a new production system. And the systematic use of antibiotics shows that livestock farming is chronically sick.
There is work to do for Wageningen UR in evaluating and weighing up the tangled mess of facts and opinions. To manage this, an arena is required where animal scientists, environmental scientists, social scientists and scientists working on healthcare or spatial development all feel at home. Let it take the form of an innovation project. Design a sustainable version of livestock farming in Brabant. Intensive livestock farming that is safe for animals and human health, that doesn't burden the environment and that produces added value - is that possible? What are the system requirements and what agreements need to be made in the distribution chain to enable such a form of livestock farming, and what would be the best location? The Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals, the farmers' association ZLTO, supermarkets and the provincial government would all be interested in the answers. Let the dilemmas take the shape of a series of different designs. And let those 33 thousand Brabant citizens give their comments. I don't believe we already have all the knowledge and expertise required for these designs - which is all the better for a knowledge institution.
Twenty-five years ago, the Wageningen plant scientists ignored organic farmers when they came up with new ideas and new research questions. The relationship between that sector and Wageningen never really recovered after that false start. Let that be a lesson. If you keep to the facts, you'll miss the boat.

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