We need more productive and more intensive livestock farming, not less, writes Aalt Dijkhuizen of Wageningen University in a reaction to the Wakker Dier campaign to ban the plofkip.
This year has seen a number of campaigns against factory-farmed chickens, or ‘plofkippen’ as they have been dubbed (literally: exploding chickens, DN). Animal rights organisations want to force supermarkets to promote less intensive production methods. I think this is a curious development. Dutch livestock farming is one of the most productive and cleanest in the world. Why would anyone want to ruin an industry like that? If anything, agriculture will have to be become more productive and intensive. If not we will be faced with serious food shortages.
The demand for food will increase exponentially in the coming decades. Estimates vary between one-and-a-half to twice the current production in 2050. The world population is growing rapidly, people in the emerging economies are becoming more prosperous and will increase their consumption of meat, eggs and dairy. We should, of course, look to developing new sources of protein (algae, insects) and combating wastage is another option, but this will never cover the extra demand for food.
We cannot expect the increase in population to be matched by a proportionate increase in arable land. We are experiencing the limits of the land available to us as it is. More people need more space to work, live and relax. The only conclusion therefore is that the production per hectare (and per animal) must be increased.
Intensive is best
In terms of sustainability, high productivity and intensity is best. That is clear from the Life Cycle Analysis, a research project executed by the Wageningen UR which analysis and budgets the entire production chain, from raw material to the consumer’s plate. With a higher production per animal, less raw material per produced kilo is needed. A cow which produces 10,000 litres of milk needs 30% less energy per kilo of milk than two cows producing 5,000 litres each. The amount of greenhouse gas such as CO2 will also be much lower per kilo.
Nevertheless, the practice remains controversial. Animal welfare is a sensitive issue, especially where pigs and chickens in the Netherlands are concerned. Often ‘organic’ is seen as the most sustainable option. As far as the use of raw materials and the amount of greenhouse gases per kilo are concerned, this is demonstrably false. The main reason is that productivity is much lower. Production systems which take animal welfare into account give animals more space but these will grow at a slower rate and produce less. This means more feed, more space and more raw materials per unit of milk, meat or eggs and more greenhouse gas emissions.
There is a contradiction here and people will have to choose. I think animal welfare is important, make no mistake about that. The choice between a better life for animals on the one hand and a lesser impact on land and raw materials and fewer greenhouse gas emissions is one that people will have to make for themselves. Freedom of choice is a great good. I would like to make a case for an informed choice based on honest information. Is our choice to be determined by a few people from Wakker Dier? A Big Brother who knows what is best? As far as I’m concerned the consumer should have the last word!
Aalt Dijkhuizen is the chairman of the board of Wageningen UR.
This article appeared earlier on Nevedi
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