Commentary: A bellwether for U.S. animal agriculture

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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.

Next up for pork production are “mutilations”—castration, tail docking, needle-teeth clipping—which are on the U.S. activists’ list as well. Dutch farmers went from castrating male piglets with aesthesia in 2000 to no castration today for the 40 percent of hogs that remain in the country’s food supply. They want other European countries to follow suit so they can completely drop castration from their production protocols.  “It is better for the farmer and the pig,” said one producer. “We do this together with retailers.”

That last statement is the most dramatic take away from the trip, and settles eerily in the back of one’s mind as U.S. foodservice and grocers are now dictating sow housing options.

Conversations reveal that animal activists in Holland gained a strong foothold in the late 1990s and early 2000s when a series of animal health issues surfaced, including classical swine fever, avian influenza virus, Q fever and foot-and-mouth disease. The animal culling that followed made the nightly news and caused public uproar about “modern livestock production.”

NGOs began pressuring retailers, which trickled down to farmers. Today there is a product labeling system in grocery stores that grades production practices with emphasis on “humane” animal standards. It’s worth noting that the animal activists hold two seats in the Dutch parliament.

Just ahead of our visit, Holland’s retailers announced that they want “sustainable meat by 2020.” That means sustainable for the animal, environment and human beings. Retailers will take a year to define the standards more thoroughly, and say they will work with scientists, farmers and food processors.

Whether they agree with the direction or accept that it’s in their best interest, Dutch farmers say they are more proactive in working with others today.

There was a lot of talk about “farmers needing to get paid” for the extra demands being placed on them and that “market-driven” solutions offer the best prospect versus legislative action. But if all the premiums are added together, one wonders what Dutch consumers will say—or if they will have a choice.  References to there being too much food at too low a cost reminded me of similar arguments by some U.S. activists.

There is no substitute for actually seeing what is happening elsewhere, it’s hard to ignore something when you see it or hear it repeatedly. Just like production protocols differ from one farm to the next, certainly countries differ. But as our world continues to get smaller, one cannot ignore the snapshots that such a trip provides. Consider it a bellwether of you could face.     

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Bea Elliott    
Florida  |  June, 28, 2012 at 09:40 PM

Well just blow me down with a feather from a factory farm! Who would have guessed that on an animal ag article there would be mention of some "mystery" chef who says a mean analog "tastes terrible!". Wow! Who could have saw that coming?

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