Website for food debate: ‘Especially the emotions about meat and vegetarian run very deep’

The Foodlog homepage, mid-August. Pieces about obesity, about agriculture in Nigeria, about corona confusion and about Chinese leaders against food waste. News from other media. And prominently: reactions from readers. “Raw meat, raw eggs, brrr, don’t you give a shit or not?” Foodlog is like a lively market square where facts and opinions are announced side by side. “An independent news platform”, Foodlog calls itself. The site is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary.

On the barracks site next to Ede-Wageningen station, in a space that looks more like a French study than an editorial office, Dick Veerman serves instant coffee. Veerman, not related to former Agriculture Minister Cees Veerman, is the editor-in-chief and moderator – “moderator” – of the site that attracts citizens, farmers, companies, scientists and policymakers. The debate on food, health, agriculture and energy is conducted 24 hours a day. Sometimes fierce and oversimplified, but often the conversations between readers – laymen and experts – in the ‘threads’ under the articles go into considerable depth. In the early years, officials sometimes made themselves heard. “But they may no longer dare, or they will have been called back.”

If you talk to Dick Veerman (1963) about Foodlog and the development of the food debate in fifteen years, you cannot ignore Dick Veerman. Within half an hour you know that the founder of the food blog studied Frans en Wijsbegeerte, has a good nose, worked at financial institutions, co-owned a consultancy company, and became interested in Bechterew’s disease, a form of rheumatism, in food. A different diet could possibly help him to use less medication.

“In retrospect, your life makes sense,” he says about the founding of Foodlog. That this came on his way seemed ‘accidental’ and the development is still going ‘organically’, but without the personal and professional enthusiasm of foreman Veerman the site probably would not have existed, or would no longer exist.

He has been standing next to the village pump for fifteen years. The first pieces, one or two a day, were mainly about nutrition and ingredients. “What does it do for your body and how do we deal with it in relation to nature,” says Veerman, who as a child was afraid that one day no water would come out of the tap. “In any case, those articles were always about something that people want to talk about.” For example, Foodlog attracted a lot of attention with pieces that called into question Becel’s health claims. Foodlog did not become a mass medium: the site attracts 1.5 million visitors per year (for comparison: NRC approximately 2 million per week). But the site won blog awards and has found a place in food and agriculture circles.

Foodlog is now made by six permanent employees (five full-time jobs), two trainees and a number of freelance authors. In the beginning, Veerman filled the site on his own with catering man Ailko Faber. Veerman soon moderated hundreds of comments a day. And he still talks. “I saw that we can have a conversation function that newspapers leave behind. I encourage discussion.” Even when people talk nonsense? “I ask them 360 degrees around: what do you mean? And when it’s done, it’s done. I want to give space to all points of view, but you have to prevent the pushers, who keep saying the same thing, scare the others away.”

It can get intense. “Especially the emotions about meat and vegetarian are very deep.”

Government, where are you?

While around 2005 it was still the question whether the government should interfere with healthy food – it was your own fault if you were fat after all – it is precisely the industry that asks for rules, according to Veerman. Nutriscore, a logo on packaging that should make healthy choice in the supermarket easier, is an example of this. “The industry takes its responsibility in this and longs for a level playing field. ‘Shall we regulate it?’ they say. ‘Government where are you?’”

Foodlog appeals to consumers with themes such as nutrition and health. When it comes to agriculture and energy, it sometimes gets quite specialistic to the layman. Yet these topics now largely determine the debate. “We have known for a long time that there are limits to growth. Sun and wind do not provide enough energy, biomass is needed – I am completely against it – to achieve the climate goals. And now we see: food and energy are going to compete with each other. We’re putting trees in Teslas, that’s absurd. At first we thought: we have to consume more sustainably, but we will also have to consume less.”

Earlier, says Veerman, it was mainly about animal welfare and too much export. The Netherlands produces for an international market with low cost prices, while environmental requirements are increasing. “That cannot be sustained. It now appears that we have a problem with spatial planning. Industry and agriculture claim the same space.” The nitrogen crisis has made this visible to everyone.

At first we thought: we should consume more sustainably, but we will also have to consume less.

The problem in one word, according to Veerman: point pressure, the pressure per square metre. “We do too much, we want too much in a country that is too small. If we have fewer farmers, we need to take fewer measures. You’ve seen it coming for years. Now emotions are running high among farmers – and those are primal forces, you know.” No, the debate is no longer fun. “The peasant front is completely screwed up.”

But what can you as a reader of Foodlog, as a consumer, do with that? Little, says Veerman. “Buying from the farmer doesn’t solve anything, because the vast majority of production goes abroad. But consumers are also voters. We have to ask politicians: is the Netherlands a city or a country? What kind of country do we want to live in and how are we going to do that?”

Everything from grub to keto diet comes along on Foodlog. Since March, a lot of attention has been paid to corona. For the reader it sometimes feels like a pile of information, Veerman also knows that. But he doesn’t want any less. “Covid-19, like energy, has a huge impact on our food system. The catering industry is halved, we order more: what does that mean for the food chain? And if the economy goes down, we need cheap food, while food has to become more expensive to pay for the environmental measures. How?”

No profit

There have been media companies that wanted to take over Foodlog, says Veerman. “But we can’t be taken over, because we don’t make a profit.” Foodlog has no ads, no sponsored content and about a thousand paying members. Since 2011, Veerman’s wife Cécile Janssen has also been working full-time for the site, sometimes posting articles in the middle of the night. “We are crazy as a farmer. He doesn’t count his hours either.”

Foodlog earns the money with which the loss-making platform is kept afloat with much better paid consultancy assignments, projects and events for governments and companies. An example. “With the province of Overijssel, we brought farmers and Aldi together to market a range of regional products. The entire chain has to start talking to each other. This is how you can change the market. I am proud of that.”

Journalist, opinion maker, consultant, chairman of the day – doesn’t that rub, so many different hats? “I sometimes keep things to myself that journalists do write down. But I make sure to stay the outsider. I always have to weigh up myself: what is relevant and how can I be honest?” Perhaps it is because of his image of the striking philosopher, his role on the sidelines, that this combination of caps is not charged to him.

Yes, of course the “integral thinker” has thought about what the food debate will be about in 2035. Politicians, the government, no longer take care of the public, says Veerman, Western democracies are getting stuck. “We need ‘governments’ to make the facts and choices clear to the government. Foodlog, which connects citizens, farmers and companies, is such a government.”

It all started for Veerman with nutrition and rheumatism. He has now thrown all those eating rules overboard. He is skeptical about food as medicine. “The diet is full of nonsense. So many factors in the body and the environment are involved, it is impossible to prove the effect of nutrition.”

Yet he knows very well what is healthy. “Not too much and very varied.” And does that work? “We eat very badly. If we have time, we cook ourselves. But most of the time we are too rushed. And we drink a bottle of wine every day.” And meat? “Cécile is trying to slow down. But a little meat is not a bad thing, animals have an essential function in the cycle.” They can eat what humans do not eat, such as grass and food scraps. “We have a house in France. If a wild boar is shot there, we eat it.”