Variety of systems is livestock sector’s strength

Published on
February 12, 2013

Meat, milk, eggs, fish. People like to eat animal products, but they hardly know how these goods are produced. Consumers can react heatedly when they realise that animals prematurely lose their lives in the process of making these products. Wout Dekker, former CEO of feed manufacturer Nutreco, therefore pleaded for a compulsory school subject about food production, during a congress on livestock in Wageningen on 7 February. "That way, consumers will regain appreciation for food and the way it is produced", he said.

"Everyone is responsible for the way food is produced. Not just the farmer”, said pig farmer Annechien ten Have at that same symposium at the Hof van Wageningen Conference Centre. “If consumers want to see things change, farmers are willing to respond to that, but we can’t move if the rest of the chain – including consumers and the government – is not moving along."


A host of social problems related to livestock farming were discussed during the symposium 'Choices for agriculture and livestock: local or global, intensive or ecological?’. The livestock sector is responsible for 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions; feed crops are grown in other areas than where the cattle is kept, leading to withdrawal of nutrients from soils in one place and surpluses of nutrients and manure in the areas with high animal concentrations; 30 percent of biodiversity loss is attributable to the livestock sector; in the Netherlands there are concerns about the welfare of animals, overuse of antibiotics and stench around farms, in developing countries the main concern is whether sufficient food can be produced and whether farmers can earn a decent living.

Not either/or but both/and

The speakers did not just mention the problems, of course, but also discussed what can be done to address them. All speakers emphasised that there are no simple, “one size fits all solutions”. In fact, the variety in dealing with the issues and the coexistence of various farming systems is precisely the strength of the sector, the speakers all said. Martin Scholten, Director of the Animal Sciences Group of Wageningen UR, referred to the polarisation in the public debate and said: "I have heard strange contradictions. It is not either organic or intensive farming. It is not either animal welfare or environment and climate. If we think these things are contradicting and believe that we have to choose between them, then we do not need scientists. But if we don’t want to make choices but strive to be efficient as well as climate, animal and ecologically friendly, and beneficial to both the farmer and the consumer, then scientists can play an important role. We shouldn’t polarise, but connect and collaborate as to achieve balanced animal husbandry sector."

To stimulate or to dampen Western consumption patterns?

Western consumers eat on average much more animal proteins than the recommended daily intake of 60 grams, said Henk Westhoek of government organisation PBL. And also in the rest of the world, in places where wealth increases, larger amounts of meat are being eaten. Whereas Dekker had focused on the “tremendous growth opportunities for the livestock sector” due to this increasing demand for meat, Westhoek pointed out that eating and drinking large amounts of animal fats has undesirable effects on public health. Westhoek: "I'm not saying we should eat no animal products at all. They contain many healthy nutrients. But it wouldn’t harm to reduce the intake a bit." He asked whether increasing prosperity automatically leads to a "western consumption pattern" or whether there were other factors that drive up the consumption of animal products among the rapidly increasing middle class in developing and emerging countries. Marketing has helped Western hamburger restaurants to rapidly expand their market share in China and thanks ice cream manufacturer Ola it is now immensely popular to eat Magnums in Indonesia, a country where hardly any ice cream was eaten just a few years ago, said Westhoek. "I do believe that people tend to eat more animal protein as they become more prosperous, but the question is whether this behaviour should be stimulated or inhibited," he said.

Animal friendly and efficient

The benefits of organic farming, conventional farming and - above all - a combination of different types of livestock farming, were discussed by the last three speakers. "A major advantage of the intensive livestock farming is the low cost price. An advantage of organic farming is that it shows that things can be done differently ", said Imke de Boer, Professor of Animal Production at Wageningen University. An example of "doing things differently" was the aim to grow chicks at a slower rate. A chick of a breed that grows slower has less difficulty walking, which is good in terms of animal welfare. But slow growing chicks are less efficient in turning their feed into chicken breasts and drum sticks; they require more food to produce less meat. De Boer: "Therefore, the slow growing chicks have a larger negative impact on the environment, one would say. And if these slow growing chicks are fed the same food as the rapidly growing chick, that is true indeed. But a British study shows that these slow growing chicks can be fed a different type of food, which contributes substantially less to climate change. So, although the slow growing chicks require much more food, their impact on the climate is not larger than that that of fast growing chicken breeds, but the other feeding regime does improve the animal welfare."

Fewer antibiotics

Wouter van der Weijden, director of the Centre for Agriculture and Environment, complimented intensive farming with the widespread use of residues to feed pigs and praised the organic livestock sector for "tussling with biological defense mechanisms of animals" to make them more robust, and by doing so reducing the use of antibiotics. He stressed that farmers should be aware of the ecological and social context in which they operate and said: "To the people in green education I would like to say: teach your students not just how to run a farming business, but also how they should interact with their environment."

Other solutions in developing countries

The Ministry of Economic Affairs was represented by Geert Westenbrink at the Wageningen symposium, organised by the Dutch Zootechnical Association and the Study Group Development Issues. His story focused on the efficient use of raw materials and closing cycles in the livestock sector. He encouraged the conference-goers to share their views on Westenbrink, just back from six years in Ethiopia, also stressed that the smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia, with an average of 2 hectares of land, shouldn’t be forgotten. "They produce the bulk of all the food of the world, but we must be sure that they can benefit from the strong growth in demand for animal products", he propagated.

De Boer added that farmers in those countries require very different solutions. "The poorest smallholders often have many chickens. Not just because they lay eggs, but because they can also easily be traded for other goods. Hence, small farmers in rural Africa rather have many less productive chickens than a few highly productive ones. They are more concerned about keeping their chickens alive than about increasing the yield of eggs. They have very valid grounds to make those decisions, so  we shouldn’t try to convince them to switch to other farming systems. In those areas we therefore focus on improving housing systems, access to vaccination and access to markets."