Blame it on the wigeon

USDA wmc

Snow Geese in FlightThe bird flu outbreak may now be contained but that does not mean we can forget about it. After all, it is easier to blame the poor old wild ducks and geese than to eat less meat, says Joris Lohman of the Slow Food movement.


The bird flu outbreak introduced a relatively unknown danger to the public: the wigeon. This dastardly migrating bird is threatening our cheap chicken filets. The wigeon is spreading the bird flu virus, or so it is believed. The outbreak is a tragedy. Tens of thousands of chickens have had to be killed prematurely. If the old saying that the state of a society can be measured by the way it treats its animals holds any truth, we’re in very bad shape indeed.


What do you do when faced with a crisis? You look for the nearest scapegoat. The wigeon has been put in the spotlight leaving the living conditions of the chickens conveniently in the dark. As we all know, tens of thousands of chickens are living on top of each other in closed-off spaces. Factory farmers are trying to keep out ‘nature’ with more hygiene measures and ever more tightly closed doors. Nevertheless, bird flu is with us once again. A well-known crisis reflex is kicking in: it isn’t the system, it’s human error that is to blame. We just didn’t see the wigeon coming.

It’s not that simple. If not the wigeon who else can we blame? Factory farming? Farmers are being portrayed as ruthless money grabbers exploiting defenceless animals. That’s not quite the whole story either. Factory farmers are caught in a system that demands cheap meat. The only way of achieving this is by cutting production costs which means large-scale factory farms. Intensive factory farming stopped being lucrative a long time ago.


The consumer, in high dudgeon about animal abuse, buys his reduced ‘plofkip’ in the supermarket without any qualms. The supermarket managers aren’t bothered either: ‘if they don’t buy from us they’ll go elsewhere.’

And the government? The government thinks animal welfare is important. It thinks employment in the agricultural sector is important too and it is doing its utmost to promote the export of meat, the more the better. Apart from meat, the Netherlands likes to export knowledge so other countries can learn how to stuff as many animals as possible onto a very small surface too. Oh, and shut those doors.

All this is happening against the background of a growing world population – people who wouldn’t mind a chicken filet every once in a while either. Earlier this month, British scientists published the umpteenth report explaining how meat production is the biggest cause of global warming, topping the CO2 emission produced by all the cars in the world put together. More crisis! What can we do to stop this? Eat less meat. Oh dear, that sounds far too complicated. Anyone for shooting some wigeons?

Joris Lohman is a member of the Slow Food Youth movement SFY.

This column appeared earlier in Trouw.


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