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.

Can farmers inform policy about multifunctional agriculture?

By Leonardo van den Berg (MSc. student International Development Studies, Wageningen University) & Klarien Klingen (graduate International Land and Water Management, Wageningen University).

On the 8th of October we participated in the mini-conference about multifunctional agriculture organized by the Rural Sociology Group. We would like to share some thoughts about the conference and relate them to our thesis research experiences in Brazil.

Gianluca Brunori spoke of the benefits of multifunctionality in Tuscany. Here, farms are not merely production spaces rather:

  • Educational sites where children learn about biodiversity and breeds of animals.
  • Sites where farmers are community leaders and negotiate with public institutions.
  • Sites where food quality is negotiated with consumers and subsequently created. This not only entails consumers’ feedback on wine but also farmers educating consumers on what other parts of a cow are edible.

These thoughts turn past and present public concerns of educating farmers upside down and coincide with our thesis experiences in Brazil, where we studied a movement of innovative peasants. Here, farmers refused to be assigned a role as a poor class and instead re-established their role as experts over production, consumption and the environment. Their knowledge, farming systems, and achievements surprised social and natural scientists.

Roberta Sonnino and Katrina Rønningen focused on state policies. Sonnino criticised the little support UK policy grants to multifunctional agriculture. She argues that the UK equates best value with low costs. The few developments in multifunctional agriculture have occurred despite rather than thanks of state action. An exception is the Scottish case where an increase in organic and locally produced school meals gained €150.000 of regional revenues. Rønningen showed us another picture: in Norway multifunctionality has been embedded in society for a long time. She says it started with market demand and that it is now supported by policy: the government aims at having 20% of the food locally produced by the year 2020. Farming as a profession is highly appreciated by the public: farmers are seen as managers of cultural heritage and as producers of healthy food.

Two things struck us about these two cases. First, the UK case shows how difficult it is to penetrate the neo-liberal armour that defines not only political but also much of our own rationality. Policies are often perceived as an obstacle rather than as enabling factors. It was this hostile context in which Brazilian peasants operated. Through diversification, agroecology, and community forms of exchange these peasants have increased their autonomy enabling them to pursue their own values. Second, the case of Norway gives us a taste of the role public policies could play in the valorisation of farmers as (re)producers of healthy food, nature, landscape, biodiversity, and public health. That most governments are lacking this is no secret, even according to a market oriented, middle size farmer in our research area:

I could fence a water source, buy some wire and provide some poles. If it were more, how do you say; all this imprisonment of all that is commerce, if it were more humane, looked more at the human side, I think there would be more left and all of society would gain from this (interview November 2009).

In short: we would argue that that the lessons from the third world should not be underestimated. Our experience learns that some of these cases may be running well ahead of theory and policy practice.

Corn, soybean and hogs; the way we do things here

Iowa agriculture is dominated by corn, soybean, hog and ethanol production. A common feature among this list is that all of these are commodities; bulk products ready for further industrial processing. In a way, Iowa agriculture represents a single ‘farming style’ (Van der Ploeg et al), a choice for:
– a high level of specialization
– high input/high output (a throughput system)
– a high level of mechanization and reliance on technology

So, when the only thing you see growing is corn, you come to believe that Iowa is only suitable for corn, and, maybe, to a lesser extent for soybean. I came across such a conviction many times. For example, at the windmill visitors centre in Pella, I was explained how the wheat which is milled every six weeks comes from North Dakota. “Because in Iowa, you can only grow corn” the lady explained.

The omnipresence of corn, soybean and hog production has a social-coercive character.

“The habit obtains, when established, a more or less self-evident, normative character. Things do not only happen like this, they should happen like this” (Hofstee 1985 in Van der Ploeg 2003: 237).

Highly productive and efficient corn and hog production have become part of people’s identification with what good modern agriculture is all about. Something to be proud of and a status quo to be defended. This identification is not simply about knowledge and power but about beliefs and thus emotion of what is felt morally right.

In the Farm Bureau paper The Spokesman (H29/09) an author felt compelled to defend farming in Iowa, because environmentalists “impose” further unspecified “climate change rules” on farmers which lead oddly enough to environmental damage according to him. How? The logic of reasoning is startling. Basically, other countries would fill the market gap by the increased cost/decreased production is the argument. But – with empathy – the author continues that “in many of those areas, land is fragile and is prone to severe environmental degradation if it is intensively farmed.” Especially because “farming practices in the developing world are not as environmentally advanced as those in the United States.” He concludes therefore that “improving corn and soybean production right here in Iowa” is the best thing to do since Iowa is “the most efficient and most environmentally-friendly place on Earth” for it. Go figure.

Changing the agricultural landscape in Iowa is in essence a cultural change, a change in values and beliefs. The impact of the sheer presence only, of people making alternative choices, of alternative farming styles and practices such as those represented in forms of organic and local food production, cannot be underestimated. Their practice is a ‘nuisance’ because it confronts and therefore uncovers the taken for granted. Of course as the example illustrates, new awareness can be denied, but a return to unawareness is impossible.

The Technology Treadmill. John Deere's new 48-row planter. From:

The Technology Treadmill. John Deere's new 48-row planter. From:

Yet another crisis in the hog industry

During my time in Ames I met quite a few current or previous students of the Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture (GPSA) in which both Jan and Cornelia Flora teach. The GPSA is a truly interdisciplinary program in which students with diverse (and often international) backgrounds meet. Although each student has a ‘home department’ such as sociology or agronomy, they go through the program together as a group, learning the social, biological and economic aspects of sustainability in agriculture.

I already heard from current students that they really appreciated course ‘509’. This Agroecosystems Analysis course starts with a two week tour around Iowa, in which the students visit a wide variety of farms and related industry. STA72350I was allowed to join the new group of students at start of the excursion tour last Saturday to the hog farm of the Struthers family in Collins, half an hour south west of Ames.

Before departure, Gretchen Zdorkowski, from the Agronomy Department, gave us an introductory lecture on agriculture in Iowa. In some ways, Iowa is quite similar to the Netherlands. Of all states, Iowa probably has been altered the most, with hardly any original landscape left. Like the Netherlands, Iowa has plenty of rainfall and is equally phenomenally drained to serve agricultural needs. Although the dominance of corn and soybean production (20% and 16% of US production respectively) contrast with the Netherlands, another similarity is the large number of pigs and chickens in Iowa. Whereas the Netherlands counted over 12 million pigs in 2008, Iowa had over 16 million pigs in 2005. Also, Iowa has the largest egg production industry in the US.

The US chicken industry is ruled by only 6 companies nowadays. The hog industry is not quite as concentrated as that but, according to farmer Dave Struthers, it is unfortunately moving in the same direction. Dave runs the family hog business, a breed to finish operation based on 750 sows at 8 different locations around Collins. It is one of a diminishing number of independent businesses which do not raise and finish on an integrator contract, but sell to the cash market.

STA72357The hogs are partly housed in individual crates and partly housed in groups in hoop houses. There are also 1000 acres of corn, exclusively used for feeding the hogs and for straw in the hoop houses. A combination of hogs and corn is rare nowadays but it allows Dave a better use of his own resources. The slurry and the partly composted manure from the hoop houses is used as fertilizer, accompanied by a ‘sideshower’ of artificial nitrogen when the corn is a few feet tall.

Dave showed us around on two of his locations, and we were even allowed to enter the nursery. “I want the farm to be open to people and I received visitors from all over the world” Dave explained. “I believe that when people know where their food comes from, they have more respect for it”.STA72371

Although a true family business, Dave is currently doing the larger part of the work by himself. He is forced to do so, because the hog industry is in crisis again. “I had a 20 dollar a head loss last week” Dave told us; 20 out of the last 22 months have known red numbers. This crisis is different from the one in the late nineties Dave explained, there seems no end to it now. “They say we need a production cut of 5 to 10 %, but that’s not happening for the moment.” The large integrators hardly cut down, as they can repair losses at one end with profit at the other – retail – end of their production pipeline. Awaiting better times, Dave tries to survive by downsizing production, cutting costs such as labor and intensifying the use of his own resources.

Feeding the city or nourishing the city?

More than half of the world’s population is living in cities. It are especially the larger cities that are increasing in size and many of these ever expanding cities are located in regions that are most suitable for food production. The tension between a growing urban population and a decline in agricultural land is increasingly acknowledged. Also the former Dutch Minister of Agriculture, Cees Veerman, states that the growing urban demand for food requires a fundamental shift in food production systems: fresh food should be produced closer to cities. He holds a strong plea for setting up a large Metropolitan Agriculture pilot project (see also this video interview). At first sight, the idea of producing food close to where people live sounds appealing as it will reduce food miles significantly.

But at second sight, his plea for metropolitan agriculture is to a large extent nothing but a plea for an ongoing industrialization of food production as this metropolitan agriculture video shows. Veerman also states that small-scale initiatives like urban agriculture cannot fulfil the growing urban food demand. Although this may be true, I do believe that innovative forms of urban agriculture such as SPIN farming, small-scale hydroponics and rooftop gardening can provide a significant part of the food needed for the urban population.

Most important, however, is that urban agriculture is about nourishing the city, while Veerman’s metropolitan agriculture is limited to feeding the city or actually, to phrase Michael Pollan, to produce foodstuffs (i.e. the highly processed, modified, fructosed, hormoned, and antibioticized products that we eat) for the urban population. With nourishing the city, I refer to the fact that food is more than a vehicle for nutrients, vitamins, calories, proteins, etc…; it is also a means to contribute to the development of  sustainable and healthy cities: 

Urban agriculture has the potential to make a significant contribution to the solution of many current urban problems that fall within the rubric of healthy communities and sustainable development. These include:

  • environmental degradation and ecological restoration
  • resource consumption
  • health and nutrition issues
  • food security and access for lower income citizens
  • ecological education
  • local economic development and diversification
  • community building

All these can be influenced in a profound way by the activity of food production in urban spaces.  Add to that the increased freshness of locally produced food, lower transportation costs, dietary diversification, and responsiveness to local needs and the advantages of producing at least some of our food in cities becomes obvious. This is what makes the prospect of a city full of food gardens and overflowing with the bounty from urban greenhouses so exciting” (

One aspect that is missing in the quote above is that urban agriculture is, unlike the form of agriculture now proposed under the label of metropolitan agriculture, a form of food production that centres around notions of food democracy and food sovereignty (see also Petra’s recent blog).

Although Cees Veerman may be right by concluding that urban agriculture is not capable of feeding the urban population, I do think that urban agriculture has the potential of producing a significant part of the food needed by urban dwellers, and, more important, urban agriculture does much more than just producing food (see e.g. urban farmer Will Allen). So if we take the different contemporary problems of many metropoles into account, I would argue that we are much better of with metropolitan food systems that do not simply feed the city but that actually nourish the city.