The Netherlands is a high-pressure vessel: a very high density of both humans and animals. Due to the strong urbanization, land is scarce and food production competes with other uses of the countryside, such as nature, recreation and traffic. Moreover, our agricultural food system is an intensive system that still manages to realize growth in exports on an increasingly smaller acreage. ‘Super cow’ Nora, portrayed this week in NRC, who has given 200,000 liters of milk in her lifetime, is an example of this.

All this has a downside: in particular the sustainability of livestock farming and the role of the animal within it are under discussion. This is reflected in the nitrogen crisis and the role of agriculture in this. Farmers’ protests, a tractor ban, reports from the Remkes Committee, animal feed measures and subsequent farmers’ protests. There is so much to do about livestock farming, the environment and climate that the question arises: is there still room for livestock farming in the Netherlands? And why is finding answers so difficult?

Compared to thirty to forty years ago, we see a strong reduction in ammonia emissions and losses of nitrogen and phosphorus to groundwater and surface water. But it is still not enough. Nature and the environment are still under pressure and further steps are needed. This also involves other aspects of sustainability, such as biodiversity, landscape and animal welfare.

In livestock farming, we see that issues are often viewed separately. The focus is on one or a limited number of aspects, such as greenhouse gas emissions or improving animal welfare. A solution must be devised for these issues in the short term, as is currently the case with nitrogen. Moreover, the solution is often technical in nature: we breed animals that can give more milk, emit less methane, cope better with a more varied closed-loop diet or that can handle the heat better. We also often look at issues at one scale level and look for solutions there: we look at the farm, the region or nationally, and do not make the connection between those levels.

Not an easy solution

In addition, the social discussion is fiercely polarized: every (interest) group has its own truths and unwelcome (scientific) information is openly questioned.

There is a lot on the plate of ‘the farmer’: questions from the food chain and wishes from society come together on the farm. But the farmer is only one link in an agricultural food system, which consists of supply companies, support services, processors, supermarkets and finally the consumer. Together they form a chain of interdependencies. Each party must be held accountable for its responsibility for sustainability. However, the commercial interests of many of these parties often do not correspond or only partially correspond to the public interest.

The livestock farming issue in the Netherlands is therefore very complex. There is no simple, general solution toone size fits all‘ applies. For sustainable and valued livestock farming, many aspects must be taken into account: less ammonia and greenhouse gas emissions, better animal health and welfare, more biodiversity, a liveable countryside and a future perspective for the farmer and the food chain. Opting for improvements in one area can cause deterioration in other areas.

These choices affect us all; you cannot just place the responsibility for this on the farmer or the agricultural sector. The discussion about this should be conducted more broadly in the form of a social dialogue. Not about, but talking to each other. Then it does not work to only ventilate your own truths and to put other information aside as false. A process of joint exploration of information and getting to know each other’s ‘language’ is necessary. You still don’t have to agree with each other, but you do talk about the same issue, recognize each other’s perspective and can understand this. Only in this way can you come to a consensus, instead of polarizing further.

Public interests

In such a social dialogue, space is also created to no longer interpret issues in a mainly technological way. The current one-sided approach is creating resistance among both citizens and livestock farmers, and the gap between them is growing. For example, many citizens have the idea that within livestock farming there is no eye for the animal and that the animal is only a tool. In the meantime, livestock farmers have the feeling that technical solutions are being forced on them, but that they themselves have no say and their craftsmanship is ignored. Giving space to these social and emotional aspects contributes to closing the gap.

There is a clear directing role for governments. After all, it concerns matters of public interest: food security, food safety and a good and healthy living environment and economy. And about qualities/products/services such as landscape, biodiversity and water storage, which are separate from the quality of the products supplied by the livestock farmers. In addition, there are also international agreements to which the Netherlands has committed itself. All this cannot be provided by the business community, which has its own agenda in which survival and market share play a prominent role.

The consumer also shares in the responsibility for the issue of sustainable livestock farming. After all, it is about food, and therefore about consumption. If our consumption pattern does not change, we will get products from elsewhere if they are not made in the Netherlands. Less livestock farming in the Netherlands therefore means a relocation of the problem, not its solution.

A farmer can therefore want something, but his options are limited due to the dependencies in the chain. This is further enhanced by market forces. The prices for its products are under heavy pressure due to the political and social desire to offer a cheap food package and the competition between supermarkets to be the cheapest. There is little room to do things differently. If you want to break through this, you will have to think about other relationships, such as shortening the food chain. The farmer alone cannot achieve this.

Self-sufficiency unrealistic

Not everything can be solved at the company level. High emissions in a region are often the result of a high density of companies, rather than poor environmental performance at one company. These are issues that belong to the government rather than to the individual farmer.

And then the agricultural food system is not even organized nationally, but internationally. Only a quarter of Dutch consumption comes from our own country, the rest comes largely from Europe and partly from abroad. In theory we can feed our own population if we don’t export, but that is a situation that is far from realistic, given the diet we would have to follow: a simplified version of the old-fashioned Dutch pot. Lots of potatoes, very little meat, gravy and vegetables. Coffee, tea, chocolate, olive oil, rice, pasta, nuts and bananas are disappearing and we are going to eat less grains and pork. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency calculated that self-sufficiency is not feasible.

Is there still room for livestock farming in the Netherlands? Of course. Animals fulfill a useful function in utilizing grass and residual products that we humans cannot or do not want to eat. This picture fits in perfectly with the vision on circular agriculture of Minister Schouten of Agriculture (CU). That still means a drastic adjustment of our consumption, because if we only use grass and residual flows, we will be left with a considerably smaller animal production.

The animal is not so crazy yet

Livestock is also an integral part of our landscape. Part of the landscapes in the Netherlands is formed by livestock farming, in particular the open meadow areas on the peat and clay soils in the western and northern Netherlands, but also in the river areas.

How will livestock farming relate to artificial meat and milk replacer in the future? Meat and milk substitutes are products made from refined vegetable proteins, which often require a great deal of technology and energy and generate residual flows. The sustainability of those products has been questioned in a number of studies and legumes are mentioned as a more sustainable and healthier alternative. If you do want to use milk and meat (in moderation), then the animal is not so crazy after all.

In short: there is room for the cow in the Netherlands, but the farmer cannot handle all the changes on his own. Purely technical solutions will not suffice, we also need – or rather – a social and emotional approach. The polarization that is widening the gap between farmers and citizens is getting in our way, while we still have to come out of it together. Rural areas and livestock farming have many functions that we all consider important and which we want or even have to give a place in. It concerns such important matters: biodiversity, a healthy and beautiful living environment, safe and valued food, healthy animals, a future perspective for the livestock farmer, but also functions such as water storage. It may sound soft, but that is precisely where social dialogue, connection and mutual understanding are needed. Let’s look together for solutions and support. Only in this way can we avoid situations of farmer protests, ultimatums, threats and subsequent excuses.

Tags :