Factory farming and industrial
farming ("bio-industry") are relatively randomly
chosen notions. To me for instance it's a mystery why
they are applied to chicken and pigs, and not to cows.
Cows pay their price for modern production methods just
For the public that may become visible, now that it
has to be feared that the cow too will disappear from
This article was published
July 19, 2003 in the Dutch newspaper NRC in the series
"The Live Stock".
In Holland the author Koos van Zomeren is famous, next to his novels, for his never ending
production of columns and short stories about farm animals,
laboratory animals, animal populations kept in zoos,
and pets as well as Dutch wildlife: stories always related
to daily practice where man's ways to go about with
animals are concerned, and where interests often don't
At present 10 percent of the Dutch dairy
cows are being kept inside permanently. It is expected
this figure will rise up to 30 percent in five years time.
The effects of the new European Union agricultural politics
even aren't yet included. The income of dairy farmers
will come under severe pressure, half of them will no
longer be able to meet financial obligations.
The slogan is: get as much milk as you can from as
little grass as possible. Result: in future we'll only
watch tractors graze.
Pity for us, pity for the cow. She cherishes the pastures
very much. Everyone who has ever visited a farm knows
that, and it's being confirmed by behavioral research.
You teach an animal that a certain signal is being
followed by a certain reward and you watch how in the
end it reacts to that signal. For cows there is no greater
reward than being sent out to pasture. You give the
signal "in a short while the doors will open"
and they become excited, they begin to rejoice.
I got to this because I finally found time
for a report of the Foundation 'Nature and Environment',
a report called "A fair price for sustainable food".
This plan to promote the transition to a production
process that is more friendly for animals as well as
for the environment, was presented in April. On that
occasion a forum discussion was held where the chairman
of the largest Dutch farmers association said what he
kind of always says: "A lot is being said about
producing in responsible ways, but little about consuming
in responsible ways. That is móre than just shouting
good things and buying bad ones."
You can read this remark as an appeal for an immediate
and total boycott of products from intensive farming,
and in that case you have to agree with this man. Whoever
buys these products, buys animal suffering.
But you can also read this remark as an attempt to
throw the responsibility for the existence and continuation
of industrial farming upon the consumer, and in that
case the chairman plays a risky game. You have to be
very much aware of your own position before accusing
the other of hypocrisy.
If this (industrial farming) is an immoral business,
and that's what it is, then it's immoral for all parties
involved: producers, government, consumers and retailers.
It's no coincidence I put them in this order. Both in
first ánd last instance, it's nobody else but
the farmers who keep their cattle the way they do. And
I stress that point even more, because there are also
farmers who refuse to take place in this merry-go-round
and who develop alternatives.
The consumer meanwhile is being misled by existing
price differences. The consumer is, partly intentionally,
being confused by a forest of hallmarks. The consumer
will assume that products that are legitimately for
sale in shops can indeed be bought legitimately. Moreover
the consumer will assume that his most elementary decisions
are taken on election days and not in the supermarket:
that not the retail chain but the Binnenhof, Downing
Street, Capitol Hill etc.: the seat of his government
represents the heart of democracy.
Certainly, the consumer ought to know better by now,
but even then one thing firmly remains: being a consumer,
he only has a marginal influence on animal welfare.
Even in the brightest scenario a marketshare
of no more than 10, 20 percent at best, is being predicted
for biological and bio-dynamical produce. The majority
of our farm animals therefore remains shackled by industrial
This means that, on balance, a small improvement within
industrial farming can yield more animal well-being
than one small percent more or less in turnover of biological
This also means that 'biological' opposes itself against
animal welfare when the existence of an alternative
is being seized in order to leave improvements in industrial
farming undone. With a little mistrust that tóó
can be read from the afore mentioned remark of the farmer's
Allright, this report by 'Nature and Environment'.
Fair prices, that's not the same as low prices.
Low prices are the fundaments of industrial farming.
But the prices can be so low because part of the costs
is being rolled down. What animals surrender in terms
of well-being, what nature, environment and landscape
loose in terms of quality, what the tax payer has to
cough up in terms of money after an outbrake of a contagious
animal disease - none of all this is being taken into
The Foundation 'Nature and Environment' now wants to
set something right: a 3 percent levy on retailprices
of meat and dairy produce and 10% on eggs. As far as
Holland is concerned, in five years time this action
would generate 273 million euro. From this fund damages
caused by industrial farming can be repaired. And the
cow will remain outside in the meadow!
I mention this in one paragraph only, but the report
consists of 46 pages and it couldn't have been much
less. Next to moral and economical consequences, there
are especially legal implications. The Law on Competition,
although with the best of intentions, creates difficulties
about price-fixings, and outside The Netherlands there
is Europe and outside Europe there is the world trade
organization WTO. The world trade with its dictatorial
liberalizations has made animal welfare a worldwide
The plan of 'Nature and Environment' calls for an active
government. Setting up such a levy, the spending of
money from such a fund, it's all political decisions.
At the same time the government itself causes the impression
it would prefer to totally withdraw from this hornets'
nest. In a recent letter to the parliament, the minister
of Agricultural Affairs for the time being limits himself
to the ascertainment that it can't go on this way with
industrial farming. How things can be done better in
future, is something he hopes to hear from the sector
itself. In the autumn of 2003 a nationwide public debate
will take place for that purpose.
That the government dreads the next case
of foot & mouth disease, swine fever or bird's pestilence,
and that it prefers to be less visible when barbaric culling
practices take place, can be understood. That the government
no longer wants to spend its good money on controlling
the pursuit of rules that are being neglected on a large
scale anyhow, is a bad sign. That the government would
no longer be willing to set norms about the keeping of
cattle, is unthinkable. For who else then must do so?
The government of course does admit these responsibilities.
It does set norms about the practices of keeping cattle.
For the animals concerned, this is however not enough.
The standards are too low and, as said, are being widely
"Industrial farming in The Netherlands owes its
origin to a number of competition advantages,"
the minister writes in a letter that concerns cattle-fodder,
infrastructure, professional knowledge and the spirit
of enterprise. He does not mention the obligingness
of the animals. Of course that's not a typical Dutch
issue, but nevertheless it has to be mentioned in this
In the natural context an animal's ability to adapt
is a beautiful, creative survival mechanism. In our
social context however, it all too easily turns into
its opposite. In this connection it is more like a doom.
In this context, adaptation no longer means victory,
but a defeat that endlessly drags itself along.
The cows that are permanently kept inside, will no
doubt go on producing lots of milk. Farmers then say
what they tend to say all the time: "if they wouldn't
be treated well, they wouldn't perform."
But those cows: do we indeed have to die then in order
to prove we're unhappy?