Fair prices

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 as well. For the public that may become visible, now that it has to be feared that the cow too will disappear from public space. 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 agree.
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 farming. 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 produce can. 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 organization chairman. 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 account. 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 issue. 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 evaded. "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 respect. 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?

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