By sheer size alone, American and European agriculture are dramatically different. Yet, when it comes to consumer trends and activists' actions, time and again we’ve watched developments cross the pond and reach our shores.
I recently had the good fortune to travel to the Netherlands for a glimpse of trends, developments and research associated with pig and poultry production. Now, even though global boundaries are more transparent today, when it comes to production applications American farmers tend to believe “whatever you saw there doesn’t really apply to us here.”
Well, yes and no. Granted, Holland is just the double the size of New Jersey and there are about 6,500 pork producers in all. Swine herds average about 320 sows, with 10,000 sows representing the largest (4,000 maximum on one site) and produce about 24 million pigs annually. The general population tallies 16.6 million, which translates to a much higher density than in the United States.
As in the United States, agriculture and food production have a significant spot in Holland’s grand social scheme. The consumer has definite opinions, but little real-world understanding.
For centuries importing and exporting goods have been part of Holland’s everyday landscape. In fact, 60 percent of the country’s hog and pork production is shipped elsewhere—mostly to other European countries, specifically Germany.
The Dutch have long been committed to research and technology, with designs on what else can or should be done. Remember, this is the country that’s developing the “meat substitute,” which one chef who’s testing it with foodservice customers, said “it tastes terrible,” specifically the texture. They also are investigating insects as protein sources to help address future global food demand.
Today, like U.S. pork producers, Dutch hog farmers face high feed prices and low margins. They’re numbers are declining and herds are getting larger—to a point. They also face a long list of outsiders that want a say about what occurs on their farms. We all know about the European Union’s ban on gestation-sow stalls that goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Yet it doesn’t take long to see that Holland leads the trend on many such requirements. A variety of gestation-sow housing options are used today, but full-term stalls were banned long ago. It’s clear that requirements will be tweaked as “society” (read that NGOs) will continue to ask for more concessions.