Citizens and animal farming… an ongoing debate…

Over the last years I’ve been studying the socio-cultural sustainability of animal farming by looking at citizen perceptions in the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark of  two farming systems; dairy and pig production (see former blogs). The debate is ongoing and I am happy to see that an increasing number of researchers are actively involved in this field.

However,  I’ll be moving into another – also very interesting – field… also animal farming… also sustainability, but this time in Mozambique and smallholder goat production.  Hence, this is my final blog for Rural Sociology. From the 15th of June I’ll be working as post doctoral researcher for the International Livestock Research Institute ( in Africa and India.

For those of you interested in the field of citizens and animal farming in Western societies,  below is a list of my publications, including two recently published papers. One paper includes the results of pig farm visits (see former blog), the other is a very compact review paper of my PhD thesis, only 9 pages…. Two other papers are published in open access journals, so I’ve included the link to the full paper for you. You’re free to use them (with correct reference of course) 🙂  

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“What is a good life for animals?”

Last week 65 students Animal Science have been dealing with this question during the course ‘Animal Science in Society’ (RSO 11303). We used David Fraser’s book ‘Understanding Animal Welfare. The Science in its Cultural Context’ (2008) as guidance. David Fraser describes three concepts for animal welfare, i.e. what entails  ‘a good life for animals’ : a) a healthy life, b) a natural life, c) a happy life. The three concepts are not mutually exclusive, but overlap. Moreover, they often don’t go together, they are in conflict.

In groups of 6 students per group, the students worked on this question to get familiar with the concepts and to learn to apply these. Each group answered the question for a specific animal in a specific environment. “What is a good life for…?” …a dairy cow at a commercial farm? …a rabbit at home? …a rat at a laboratory? …an elephant in a circus? …fattening pig at a commercial farm? …a rabbit at a farm for meat production? …a fish in a fishbowl? …a laying hen at a commercial farm? …a mink at a farm for fur production? …a cat at home?

The students had to present their answers in a creative way. Well, one can leave that up to Animal Science students! You-tube movies about ‘Youp van ‘t Hek’s ‘Flappie’’, chips-eating cats, home-made movies about the ideal life for laying hens, a performance with students as rabbits and one group even designed a completely new mink production system with mink welfare as departure point!

The presentations as well as the discussions showed that the answer to this question is not as clear-cut as it may seem. Instead, the answers vary according to the animal species and their functionality. The functionality of the animal refers to the function the animal has for humans, for example food production, company, aesthetics, entertainment and testing medication. In some situations, the animal’s function harms its welfare so much, that the function itself is being questioned.  For example, a large majority of the students held the opinion that elephants should not be kept in circuses. In their opinion, the elephants’ welfare is harmed too much – as they are kept in a very unnatural environment – in comparison to the benefit for humans – entertainment. However, students were less unanimous when it comes to use of animals for food production, for example about the welfare of fattening pigs. There was one group of students who held the opinion that the welfare of fattening pigs was fine as long as the pigs were healthy. In their eyes, conventional production systems did not harm pig welfare. On the other hand, there was a group of students who considered conventional production systems too ‘unnatural’. They preferred organic farming systems which give space to more ‘naturalness’ and ‘happy pigs’.

The latter example also illustrates that in addition to the animal’s functionality, personal experiences, values and convictions play a role when defining a good life for animals. Hence, the answer to this question also varies among (groups of) people. Finally, the definition of animal welfare varies according to the social and cultural context in which it is defined and used.

Thanks to the original and enthusiastic input of the students, it was a creative and interesting closure of a week about animal welfare, in which the students could get familiar with present-day social and scientific questions (see former blog) about animal welfare!

Students, Broilers and Sustainability

Last week about 60 Msc students followed a week on socio-cultural sustainability of organic production chains, as part of the course ‘Analysis and Management of Sustainable Organic Production Chains’. Each week of the course focused on a specific component of sustainability (consumer, socio-cultural, environmental, economic), given by a different chair group. Last  week was under supervision and teaching of our Rural Sociology group.The lectures and assignments focused on socio-cultural sustainability and discussed chain perception from a societal point of view and the context dependency of indicators for socio-cultural sustainability.

During the course, the students worked in multidisciplinary and multicultural groups of 6 students. Each group represented a stakeholder in the broiler production chain (e.g. fodder company, farmers, retailers, animal welfare organization, slaughterhouse). Of the 60 students, only 1 student had a background in sociology. Others were involved in economics, agronomy or other natural-science based disciplines. Consequently, it was challenging for many of the students to change their way of thinking and reasoning to a more sociological mindset.  Moreover, one week is extremely short to do this. This resulted in hard working students and heated debates among group members.

By the end of the week, the students were requested to  – on the basis of earlier assignments that week – come up with actions that would make the broiler production chain more socio-cultural sustainable  from their stakeholder perspective. Several groups raised suggestions  like shorter production chains, more regional production and stronger embeddedness in the region. Although these themes were not explicitly tackled during this week, I was happy to hear these suggestions, because our Rural Sociology group is engaged in such themes.  

Overall, it was a week of hard working – for the students as well as the teacher 😉 – but when I look back, it makes me happy that the students themselves came up with interesting and creative ideas in just one week!

Urban Agriculture: Havana as inspiration for the Hague

Yesterday the movie ‘Borders in Our Mind’ about urban agriculture in Havana and the Hague had its premiere at Stroom in the Hague. The documentary was made by artists Annechien Meier and Gaston Wallé. Central theme of Annechien’s work is the communication between people in urban and rural environments. With her installations she tries to rouse people’s curiosity about their interaction with the environment around them. Producing food in the city, is one way of doing this. She departs from the idea that allotment gardens reflect values of a culture in a specific time and place and give possibilities for people to come in touch with each other and the (natural) world around them.

Annechien also started the project ‘Panderplein’ in the Brouwersgracht in the Hague. Here, she built a vegetable garden in cooperation with the inhabitants. Since this summer, the first vegetables have been harvested! It is amazing and wonderful to discover such a green spot in the center of the city, and moreover the project contributes to social cohesion in the neighborhood.

For the film ‘Borders in Our Mind’, Annechien went to Cuba, Havana, to learn more about the possibilities for urban agriculture. Havana has a history of urban agriculture since the 1990s  due to petrol shortages, food shortages and economic crisis. Today more than 50% of Havana’s fresh produce is still grown within the city limits. No wonder Annechien choose this city to visit as inspiration for her work in the Netherlands. In the one-hour- movie many different forms, features and possibilities of urban agriculture pass in review. The result is indeed inspiring for anyone who is engaged in or concerned about food production in urban areas.

Staggered by Queen’s speech

Yesterday Queen Beatrix held her annual Queen’s speech (Troonrede). I was astonished by her words about the Dutch agricultural sector. The text – written by our ‘demissionary cabinet’ – promoted a production- and export-oriented agriculture based on new technologies and innovations.

  “Nederland is de op één na grootste exporteur van land- en tuinbouwproducten. Het innovatieve en duurzame karakter van onze agrarische sector staat wereldwijd hoog aangeschreven. Ons land kan een belangrijke bijdrage leveren aan de mondiale voedselzekerheid door te blijven werken aan verbetering van de huidige technologieën. De overheid schept hierbij randvoorwaarden voor duurzame productiemethoden.” – Troonrede 21 september 2010 

These words could have been written decades ago – in the era of maximizing agricultural production when high levels of technology promised to solve the problems – only this time such promises are headed under the name ‘sustainable production methods’. But by now, we should have learned our lessons over time; technology can help to find solutions, but only if these also fit into our social and cultural world.

Listening to the Queen’s speech, maybe I am the one who’s mistaken here. Apparently, we are in this era of maximal production, maybe even more than we have ever been. Despite alarming societal organizations and increased social concerns about for example the way animals are treated in our society, ‘we’ keep on producing food in a production-oriented way. I was astonished by the lack of the nuances in this speech: what about regional production? and organic agriculture? What about animal welfare issues? What about environmental load? What about the consequences of our production for African agriculture and food supply? Do the writers of this speech really believe that we can solve such issues by merely focusing (and hoping!) for new technologies?!

I appreciate – just as many citizens in my research (see former blogs) – several achievements of technological developments, but it is all about making trade-offs. How far do we want to go? Unfortunately such decisions are often money-based without giving much thought to social consequences. I am really disappointed that our ‘demissionary cabinet’ carries out such a message. Moreover, my concerns about the future of agriculture and equal food production – both in the Netherlands and world-wide – had been confirmed: Where are we going?! I had hoped for a more nuanced vision, including themes such as regional production, animal welfare and the environment.

Hoe een varken een ei legt

Onlangs is het kinderboekje ‘De Verkipping’ verschenen, geschreven door Tjibbe Veldkamp  en geïllustreerd door Kees de Boer in opdracht van Kasteel Groeneveld.

Tjibbe kreeg van Kasteel Groeneveld de opdracht dat “in kinderboeken ook wel eens een realistisch beeld van het moderne boerenbedrijf neergezet mocht worden.” Dat haakt mooi aan bij een stelling uit mijn proefschrift  “Kinderboeken en –boerderijen geven vooral de ‘rurale idylle’ weer, waardoor idyllische denkbeelden over de landbouw al vroeg gevormd worden, daarmee wordt volledig voorbij gegaan aan het feit dat moderniteit ook een belangrijk onderdeel van de landbouw is waarover kinderen zouden moeten leren.”

Maar ja, Tjibbe wist zelf eigenlijk ook niet hoe dieren in de huidige veehouderij gehouden worden, vertelt hij openlijk op You Tube in The making of ‘De verkipping’. Zijn inspiratie kwam van dikbilkoeien. Bij deze dieren is er zo sterk gefokt op spierontwikkeling (vlees dus), dat kalveren niet meer via een natuurlijke weg geboren worden, maar alleen via een keizersnede ter wereld kunnen komen. Dit bracht de auteur op het idee dat de dieren in de huidige veehouderij allemaal aangepast zijn aan de wensen van de mens.

Het verhaal gaat over een boer die zijn varkens eieren wil laten leggen. Daarvoor ontwerpt hij een ‘verkippingsmachine’. Eén klein varkentje waagt – opzoek naar vrijheid – de sprong in de machine….en wat er dan gebeurt… dat mag u zelf (uw kinderen voor)lezen.

‘De Verkipping’ raakt aan een wezenlijk dilemma in de veehouderij: In hoeverre kunnen en mogen wij als mensen dieren aanpassen voor onze behoeften?

Complimenten aan Tjibbe en Kees hoe zij dit thema in een mooi geillustreerd en humoristich kinderboekje hebben vormgegeven. Eén puntje van kritiek…. De boer komt er wel erg bekaaid af, die wordt als grote boosdoener geschetst. Maar ja, het is al een ingewikkeld onderwerp voor volwassenen, en het uitleggen van de relaties tussen economische en politieke actoren in en rondom de landbouw gaat wat te ver voor een kinderboek.

Kijkje in de varkensstal

Op Foodlog is gister een filmpje geplaatst over de varkens van Dinie en Paul Jansen. Zij ontvangen daarmee één beter-leven-ster van de Dierenbescherming.  De blog eindigt met de oproep “Vertel wat u vindt, voelt, ziet en wat zou u nog meer willen weten na deze kijk in de stallen”.  Dat prikkelt mijn zintuigen en snel kijk in naar de reacties die reeds geplaatst zijn. Annechien ten Have schrijft “Ik ben heel benieuwd hier op foodlog te horen wat de niet-varkenshouders vinden van deze stal”. Dat is precies wat ook ik graag wil weten, want we zijn momenteel een onderzoek naar burgerpercepties van de varkenshouderij aan het afronden. Voor dat onderzoek hebben we met burgerpanels varkensbedrijven bezocht.

 Aan de ene kant staan er veel positieve reacties, met name over het welzijn van de varkens. Zo schrijft Robin: Ze zien er blij en happy uit. Zo’n bal met een belletje erin lijkt me ook wel wat voor ze”. Maar er staat ook een uitgebreide reactie van Flourine Boucher die haar zorgen uitspreekt: “Het spijt mij, maar ik weet niet goed wat ik hier van moet denken. Blijkbaar is dit een voorbeeld van goede varkenshouderij. Het ziet er schoner en ruimer uit… Toch wordt ik er niet blij van. De massaliteit staat me tegen” Haar zorgen hebben met name betrekking op het niet naar buiten gaan van de dieren en beperkte mogelijkheden tot het uiten van gedrag. Ze zegt er nadrukkelijk bij “Gedegen kennis van varkensgedrag ontbeert mij. … Mijn tegenstrijdige gevoelens bij het zien van dit filmpje beletten mij een beredeneerd oordeel te vormen.”  Franka sluit zich hierbij aan en heeft “ook wel last van ambivalente gevoelens”.

Interessant! Herkenbaar! – zijn de woorden die direct in mij opkomen zodra ik hun reacties lees. Om twee redenen.

Ten eerste, Nederlanders hebben weinig ervaring meer met de veehouderij en deze reacties laten zien hoeveel vragen zo’n filmpje oproept. Bijvoorbeeld over diergedrag (vechten of spelen?), handelingen aan de dieren (staart couperen of niet?), het staltype (hoeveel staloppervlak per varken?) en de productieketen (waar komen de biggen en het voer vandaan?). Tijdens de bedrijfsbezoeken kwamen dezelfde soort vragen en onderwerpen aan bod. Deelnemers stelden veel vragen aan de veehouder en de meeste deelnemers vonden het dan ook een hele leerzame dag. Het mooie van dit foodlog is dat varkenshouder Paul Jansen de vragen van de lezers persoonlijk beantwoordt en de lezers zelfs uitnodigt om een kijkje te komen nemen op het bedrijf. Dat is mooi, want zo kunnen mensen zelf zien en ervaren wat een bedrijf inhoudt en op grond daarvan hun mening vormen.  

Ten tweede, geven de twee bovengenoemde reacties de kern van de resultaten van eerdere onderzoeken weer: ambivalentie. Men vraagt zich bijvoorbeeld af wat goed is voor de varkens en tegelijkertijd goed is voor de veehouder – die moet er immers een boterham mee verdienen. Dergelijke ambivalentie verwijst naar de ‘two faces of modernity’ : Aan de ene kant wordt moderniteit gewaardeerd dankzij technologische vooruitgang en ontwikkeling en bijkomende voordelen zoals efficiente voedselproductie. Maar aan de andere kant kunnen diezelfde ontwikkelingen een bedreiging vormen voor tradities en natuurlijkheid in de veehouderij. Dan komt bijvoorbeeld het welzijn van de dieren onder druk te staan. Op Foodlog laat varkenshouder Paul zien hoe hij hiermee omgaat en welke keuzes hij heeft gemaakt. Zo heeft hij eerder gezegd: “Ik weet één ding zeker: ik wil niet zo groot mogelijk en zo industrieel mogelijk. Dat is voor mij niet de weg om te gaan. Ik geloof in een boerenlandbouw met oog voor de menselijke maat.”  Het is inspirerend om te zien en lezen hoe Paul het gesprek met de samenleving aangaat, door zijn eigen verhaal te vertellen!

Who’s ‘the’ farmer?

Yesterday (Tuesday) 42 first year students , Paul Hebinck and I visited two Dutch farms for the course ‘Agricultural and Rural Development: Sociological Perspectives’ (RSO 20806 ).

We firstly visited the multifunctional farm ‘Eemlandhoeve’ of Jan Huigen. In an inspiring talk, Jan explained about the development of the Eemlandhoeve and the future plans. The farm has different functions, such as care farming, recreation, herb production, beef production and education for schoolchildren. After a nice walk around the farm and the calming farm yard (see picture), we walked to the neighbouring farm. 

The neighbouring farm ‘Hoeve ‘t Witte Schaap’ follows another path of development: a large scale dairy farm, with about 300 dairy cows and four milking robots. For most students, it was the first time they visited such a large dairy farm. The shed is large and high, with a lot of light and fresh air. Gerrit (the farmer) talked engaged about his farm, including the technology and animals. Two workers take care of the cows and by feeding them and looking after their health. The cows are fed with grass and maize of the farm and hardly received any concentrates (only in the milking robot). The farmer applies all the manure on his land. In fact, his way of farming is not that far from organic regulations.

After both visits we gathered, where Drees of ‘Willem & Drees’ gave an inspiring talk about regional production and sale of fruit and vegetables in five regions the Netherlands.

During the discussion, the students raised interesting questions. Firstly, one of the students asked Jan Huigen ‘How much of your income comes from food production?’ This – of course – was a limited amount and several students seemed concluded that he was not ‘a real farmer’, but more an entrepreneur in the countryside. Thereafter, the large scale farmer was asked how often he was actually among his animals, which was limited, since he had two workers to take care of the animals. The students seemed to conclude that he was neither ‘a real farmer’, because he had limited animal contact. Instead, he was more a ‘manager’.

To conclude, it was an inspiring excursion, which showed two very different development paths of contemporary farming in the Netherlands and gave students a great opportunity to think about the question what a farmer is nowadays.

Citizens and Animal Welfare: Methods, Findings and Policy Implications

Last Thursday (20th of May) I participated in an interesting workshop about citizens and animal welfare.  The workshop was organized at Aarhus University in Denmark and dealt with questions like: Whose opinion on animal welfare counts? How can one integrate the different perspectives of,  for example farmers, citizens, (animal) scientists and the government? We already know that citizens consider animals’ ‘naturalness’ a very important feature of ‘good animal welfare’. But what is naturalness exactly? Can you implement this in animal farming systems? Can you measure it? And what if the choice for naturalness is in conflict with other aspects, such as animal health? How do citizens make trade-offs between such dilemmas in animal farming? And how should one involve citizens in animal welfare research? Via surveys, farm visits, consensus conferences or are there other ways to be explored? To be short, although much research has already been done on animal welfare over the last decade, there are still many questions surrounding the animal welfare debate when it comes to citizens’ participation and involvement.

Raising new questions is of course a characteristic of research: finishing a research can give you the feeling that you answered some questions, but in the end it will always result in more questions. That’s what keeps us going. What in addition keeps me going, is the cooperation and discussion with other researchers in the world. Particularly after doing a PhD for six years on my own, it is really nice to exchange ideas and cooperate with other researchers in this field, like Jan Tind Sørensen of the Department of Animal Health and Bioscience and Peter Sandøe of the Danish Centre for Bioethics and Risk Assessment . During my PhD I often had the feeling I was one of the very few researchers who is interested in public perceptions of animal farming. But recently, the importance of the public opinion of animal farming is more and more acknowledged, also in the field Animal Science, of which this workshop was a good example.

Pleidooi Duurzame Veeteelt

Er is nogal wat commotie rondom het ‘Pleidooi Duurzame Veeteelt’. Het pleidooi is inmiddels ondertekend door ruim 200 hoogleraren, ook vanuit Wageningen, zoals Noëlle Aarts, Paul Struik, Cees Leeuwis, Olaf van Kooten en onze ‘eigen’  Han en Jan Douwe.

Het pleidooi staat voor een drastische verandering van de intensieve veehouderij, in navolging van het rapport van Commissie Wijffels in 2001: 

“De intensieve veehouderij moet ingrijpend worden veranderd. Dieren moeten meer ruimte krijgen voor natuurlijk gedrag, zoals het buiten rondscharrelen. Het transport van levende dieren moet worden beperkt en het fokken van vee moet niet uitsluitend gericht zijn op toename van de productiviteit.”

Het debat rondom de intensieve veehouderij speelt al tijden en laait met enige regelmaat weer op. Met dit actuele pleidooi lijkt het stoplicht voor de intensieve veehouderij nadrukkelijk op oranje te staan… Kunnen en willen we op deze wijze dierlijke producten blijven produceren in Nederland of niet? Oftewel, accepteren we de huidige manier van produceren – het stoplicht blijft groen – of zeggen we  ‘STOP, het is tijd voor een andere veehouderij’?

De keuze is aan jou. Velen – inclusief ondergenoemde – zijn je inmiddels voorgegaan en hebben het pleidooi ondersteund.