Citizens and animal farming… an ongoing debate…

Over the last years I’ve been studying the socio-cultural sustainability of animal farming by looking at citizen perceptions in the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark of  two farming systems; dairy and pig production (see former blogs). The debate is ongoing and I am happy to see that an increasing number of researchers are actively involved in this field.

However,  I’ll be moving into another – also very interesting – field… also animal farming… also sustainability, but this time in Mozambique and smallholder goat production.  Hence, this is my final blog for Rural Sociology. From the 15th of June I’ll be working as post doctoral researcher for the International Livestock Research Institute ( in Africa and India.

For those of you interested in the field of citizens and animal farming in Western societies,  below is a list of my publications, including two recently published papers. One paper includes the results of pig farm visits (see former blog), the other is a very compact review paper of my PhD thesis, only 9 pages…. Two other papers are published in open access journals, so I’ve included the link to the full paper for you. You’re free to use them (with correct reference of course) 🙂  

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“What is a good life for animals?”

Last week 65 students Animal Science have been dealing with this question during the course ‘Animal Science in Society’ (RSO 11303). We used David Fraser’s book ‘Understanding Animal Welfare. The Science in its Cultural Context’ (2008) as guidance. David Fraser describes three concepts for animal welfare, i.e. what entails  ‘a good life for animals’ : a) a healthy life, b) a natural life, c) a happy life. The three concepts are not mutually exclusive, but overlap. Moreover, they often don’t go together, they are in conflict.

In groups of 6 students per group, the students worked on this question to get familiar with the concepts and to learn to apply these. Each group answered the question for a specific animal in a specific environment. “What is a good life for…?” …a dairy cow at a commercial farm? …a rabbit at home? …a rat at a laboratory? …an elephant in a circus? …fattening pig at a commercial farm? …a rabbit at a farm for meat production? …a fish in a fishbowl? …a laying hen at a commercial farm? …a mink at a farm for fur production? …a cat at home?

The students had to present their answers in a creative way. Well, one can leave that up to Animal Science students! You-tube movies about ‘Youp van ‘t Hek’s ‘Flappie’’, chips-eating cats, home-made movies about the ideal life for laying hens, a performance with students as rabbits and one group even designed a completely new mink production system with mink welfare as departure point!

The presentations as well as the discussions showed that the answer to this question is not as clear-cut as it may seem. Instead, the answers vary according to the animal species and their functionality. The functionality of the animal refers to the function the animal has for humans, for example food production, company, aesthetics, entertainment and testing medication. In some situations, the animal’s function harms its welfare so much, that the function itself is being questioned.  For example, a large majority of the students held the opinion that elephants should not be kept in circuses. In their opinion, the elephants’ welfare is harmed too much – as they are kept in a very unnatural environment – in comparison to the benefit for humans – entertainment. However, students were less unanimous when it comes to use of animals for food production, for example about the welfare of fattening pigs. There was one group of students who held the opinion that the welfare of fattening pigs was fine as long as the pigs were healthy. In their eyes, conventional production systems did not harm pig welfare. On the other hand, there was a group of students who considered conventional production systems too ‘unnatural’. They preferred organic farming systems which give space to more ‘naturalness’ and ‘happy pigs’.

The latter example also illustrates that in addition to the animal’s functionality, personal experiences, values and convictions play a role when defining a good life for animals. Hence, the answer to this question also varies among (groups of) people. Finally, the definition of animal welfare varies according to the social and cultural context in which it is defined and used.

Thanks to the original and enthusiastic input of the students, it was a creative and interesting closure of a week about animal welfare, in which the students could get familiar with present-day social and scientific questions (see former blog) about animal welfare!

Students, Broilers and Sustainability

Last week about 60 Msc students followed a week on socio-cultural sustainability of organic production chains, as part of the course ‘Analysis and Management of Sustainable Organic Production Chains’. Each week of the course focused on a specific component of sustainability (consumer, socio-cultural, environmental, economic), given by a different chair group. Last  week was under supervision and teaching of our Rural Sociology group.The lectures and assignments focused on socio-cultural sustainability and discussed chain perception from a societal point of view and the context dependency of indicators for socio-cultural sustainability.

During the course, the students worked in multidisciplinary and multicultural groups of 6 students. Each group represented a stakeholder in the broiler production chain (e.g. fodder company, farmers, retailers, animal welfare organization, slaughterhouse). Of the 60 students, only 1 student had a background in sociology. Others were involved in economics, agronomy or other natural-science based disciplines. Consequently, it was challenging for many of the students to change their way of thinking and reasoning to a more sociological mindset.  Moreover, one week is extremely short to do this. This resulted in hard working students and heated debates among group members.

By the end of the week, the students were requested to  – on the basis of earlier assignments that week – come up with actions that would make the broiler production chain more socio-cultural sustainable  from their stakeholder perspective. Several groups raised suggestions  like shorter production chains, more regional production and stronger embeddedness in the region. Although these themes were not explicitly tackled during this week, I was happy to hear these suggestions, because our Rural Sociology group is engaged in such themes.  

Overall, it was a week of hard working – for the students as well as the teacher 😉 – but when I look back, it makes me happy that the students themselves came up with interesting and creative ideas in just one week!

Urban Agriculture: Havana as inspiration for the Hague

Yesterday the movie ‘Borders in Our Mind’ about urban agriculture in Havana and the Hague had its premiere at Stroom in the Hague. The documentary was made by artists Annechien Meier and Gaston Wallé. Central theme of Annechien’s work is the communication between people in urban and rural environments. With her installations she tries to rouse people’s curiosity about their interaction with the environment around them. Producing food in the city, is one way of doing this. She departs from the idea that allotment gardens reflect values of a culture in a specific time and place and give possibilities for people to come in touch with each other and the (natural) world around them.

Annechien also started the project ‘Panderplein’ in the Brouwersgracht in the Hague. Here, she built a vegetable garden in cooperation with the inhabitants. Since this summer, the first vegetables have been harvested! It is amazing and wonderful to discover such a green spot in the center of the city, and moreover the project contributes to social cohesion in the neighborhood.

For the film ‘Borders in Our Mind’, Annechien went to Cuba, Havana, to learn more about the possibilities for urban agriculture. Havana has a history of urban agriculture since the 1990s  due to petrol shortages, food shortages and economic crisis. Today more than 50% of Havana’s fresh produce is still grown within the city limits. No wonder Annechien choose this city to visit as inspiration for her work in the Netherlands. In the one-hour- movie many different forms, features and possibilities of urban agriculture pass in review. The result is indeed inspiring for anyone who is engaged in or concerned about food production in urban areas.

Staggered by Queen’s speech

Yesterday Queen Beatrix held her annual Queen’s speech (Troonrede). I was astonished by her words about the Dutch agricultural sector. The text – written by our ‘demissionary cabinet’ – promoted a production- and export-oriented agriculture based on new technologies and innovations.

  “Nederland is de op één na grootste exporteur van land- en tuinbouwproducten. Het innovatieve en duurzame karakter van onze agrarische sector staat wereldwijd hoog aangeschreven. Ons land kan een belangrijke bijdrage leveren aan de mondiale voedselzekerheid door te blijven werken aan verbetering van de huidige technologieën. De overheid schept hierbij randvoorwaarden voor duurzame productiemethoden.” – Troonrede 21 september 2010 

These words could have been written decades ago – in the era of maximizing agricultural production when high levels of technology promised to solve the problems – only this time such promises are headed under the name ‘sustainable production methods’. But by now, we should have learned our lessons over time; technology can help to find solutions, but only if these also fit into our social and cultural world.

Listening to the Queen’s speech, maybe I am the one who’s mistaken here. Apparently, we are in this era of maximal production, maybe even more than we have ever been. Despite alarming societal organizations and increased social concerns about for example the way animals are treated in our society, ‘we’ keep on producing food in a production-oriented way. I was astonished by the lack of the nuances in this speech: what about regional production? and organic agriculture? What about animal welfare issues? What about environmental load? What about the consequences of our production for African agriculture and food supply? Do the writers of this speech really believe that we can solve such issues by merely focusing (and hoping!) for new technologies?!

I appreciate – just as many citizens in my research (see former blogs) – several achievements of technological developments, but it is all about making trade-offs. How far do we want to go? Unfortunately such decisions are often money-based without giving much thought to social consequences. I am really disappointed that our ‘demissionary cabinet’ carries out such a message. Moreover, my concerns about the future of agriculture and equal food production – both in the Netherlands and world-wide – had been confirmed: Where are we going?! I had hoped for a more nuanced vision, including themes such as regional production, animal welfare and the environment.