Science - September 14, 2011

'Sustainable meat plan is not concrete enough'

On 2 September, the Van Doorn commission presented its vision for a fully sustainable livestock sector by 2020. The plan received the support of livestock farmers, politicians and supermarkets. Environmental organizations dropped out because there were no guarantees that livestock numbers would be reduced. The intentions are good, says professor of Animal Production Systems Imke de Boer. Let’s wait and see how it works out in practice.

'The fact that their starting point was to work with all the stakeholders towards a sustainable future is very positive, I think. It is something you do together, with the whole chain. So the intentions are good but implementation will take a switch to concrete action. For example, you need a monitoring system in order to check whether the chain as a whole is really producing sustainably. Then you need pricing agreements which guarantee the farmer an income so that investments can be recouped.
'I also think that citizens should be actively involved in this process. The commission says this itself in its report: public enthusiasm for meat is going down. This is due to environmental pressure, public health risks and the fact that animal welfare is not guaranteed. There is now a big difference between how the sector sees its own achievements and how the general public see them. Those are two different perspective which you need to bring together.
'In the report you see nice pictures of pigs free-ranging in a barn. It looks good, but you should only show it like this if this is how livestock farming is going to look in 2020. You must be honest and transparent. If communication with the public is not good, there is a danger that you get a livestock sector that is more sustainable but still doesn't have a good public image.
'I think the total number of animals in the Netherlands will go down when we start producing more sustainably. This will follow from the criteria that are being established, without have to make separate agreements. It could be a turning point but it demands a lot more thinking through to make it succeed.'