Few subjects generate as much discussion as the subject of food. Such discussion is increasingly marked by suspicion and pessimism about how our food is produced. Two years ago, when I was asked to make an in-depth study of the subject of Food for de RijksMuseum in Amsterdam. I was full of preconceptions about the food industry. I saw it as dishonest, unhealthy and unethical. More than that, it was contributing to the decline of our planet, unlike in the good old days, and I felt that the magic word ‘organic’ was going to solve everything. So when I embarked on this project, my first impulsive reaction was to bring to light all the misunderstandings about food once and for all.
After two years of research and photography I realized that the discourse on food production can be infinitely refined and that this often puts supposed advantages and disadvantages in a new light. Scaling-up can actually enhance animal welfare, for example, and organic production is not always better for the environment. Often, an excessively one-sided approach to the subject of food is a barrier to real solutions. Food is simply too wide-ranging and complex a subject for one-liners or to be describing in terms of black and white. More info in Food, background.
Undressing. Every day FrieslandCampina provides around a billion consumers worldwide with dairy products, making it one of the world’s five largest dairy companies. It is a co-operative of 19,487 dairy farmers whose membership makes them joint owners of FrieslandCampina. The changing room is a closed-off, secure space that acts as a barrier between the outside world and the production area. Overpressure in the space prevents polluted air from flowing into the production area. On entering, the staff are expected to hang their clothes in the tall, ventilated lockers and pull on their work clothing at the back of the room. This clothing is cleaned daily by an outside company..
Brushing. This cow brush is a self-grooming device. It gives the coat a fine sheen and comes in handy in summer for getting rid of flies.
Cross-pollinator. A family enterprise, Enza Zaden is one of the world’s eight biggest vegetable breeders. Enza Zaden focuses on improving and developing vegetable varieties and producing and selling their seeds. The firm was there at the onset of breeding vegetables and fruit (tomato, sweet pepper, lettuce, melon and onion) as ‘products’. Its aim is to improve such qualities as growth capacity, taste and resistance.
The pollen collector is a resource used in the cross-pollination of plants and was made from an electric toothbrush
Infection. Wageningen University does research under the name DuRPh (a Dutch acronym for ‘sustainable resistance to Phytophthora in potatoes’), an in-depth applied research project whose aim is to develop the prototype of a potato variety that is highly resistant in the long-term to the principal potato disease, Phytophthora or late blight.Like Downy Mildew, Phytophthora is an oomycete that attacks the leaf cells and spreads quickly. The trouble with this water mould is that it adapts at DNA level and therefore renders fungicides less effective. The plant disease has caused problems for centuries, most notably during the Great Irish Famine (1845-1850).Using genetic modification, ‘trial potatoes’ are given additional resistance genes from wild relatives. In the Petri dishes are potato leaves taken from plants with different resistance genes, after they were infected with late blight pathogens.
Prototype. Meyn is one of the world’s largest producers of poultry slaughtering and processing equipment. The Meyn Whole Leg Deboner (WLD, here in a test setup) is a great success in the production of chicken leg fillet.
Every year 8.5 billion of the world’s 32 billion chickens are processed in equipment made by Meyn. In the US the company has 70% of the market. A key feature is that each machine is made so that it can accommodate every variation in leg dimensions. As consumer preferences as regards the size and width of chicken legs varies geographically the company has developed machines that are easy to adapt to these preferences.
Sperm. K.I. Samen is one of the Netherlands’ three testing companies in the field of beef cattle insemination. By testing is meant that the company is always looking for the best product and market combinations based on qualities of the offspring of the sperm-producing bulls. The qualities examined relate to milk production as well as to life span, sensitivity and serving efficiency.The price of sperm is dictated by proven quality over the years. Prices vary between 6 and 20 euros per unit. The farmer chooses the breeding programme that suits him. Thijmen is a bull of the Meuse-Rhine-IJssel breed. MRI is often described as a dual-purpose breed as it produces both milk and beef. Thijmen is no longer a sperm donor but instead acts as a ‘partner’ for a bull that fails to mount the artificial cow on its own initiative
Nursery. Peter Stroo has a broiler farm of 160,000 chickens, divided among three houses. In 2012 he had a ‘Patio system’ module installed: instead of day-old chicks Stroo now gets pre-hatched eggs delivered. The eggs hatch in the module, from where the chicks have immediate access to bedding, feed and water. With this system, Stroo seeks to realign his company to current standards for animal welfare and hopes to make it a more economically viable concern. The advantage is that the chicks are born in the same accommodation where they spend their first weeks. Before, chicks had to be conveyed from the hatchery to the fattening farm, but now they can stay at one place, which means less stress.
Feaces. After three weeks in the Patio module the chicks – now a full 700 grams – are carried by conveyor belt to the ‘ground floor’, where within three weeks they will grow to 2.5 kilos. After each cycle, the two levels are washed and disinfected. Once the manure is removed, the whole is cleaned with a detergent and later thoroughly disinfected with a sprinkler. The process of cleaning takes three days for the Patio module and two days for the ground floor
Washing. The veal industry took off in the Netherlands at the end of the 1960s as a response to the growth of the dairy industry, which had created a surplus of calves.
The Ekro slaughterhouse processes 350,000 calves a year and is the world’s largest veal producer. The company is now an active component of the VanDrie Group chain of veal production companies. At other production sites the group produces calf milk powder and roughage for their own calves, which they put in the care of calf farmers.
Sexing. As for white poultry, there has been no success as yet in achieving a clear visual distinction between the sexes. A specialized external firm is enlisted to sex these chicks. A Netherlands-based European chick-sexers association (Maatschap Europese Kuikenseksers or MEK) has such specialists on its payroll all across Europe. The difference can be read off in the wing feathers. One specialist can sex 25,000 chicks a day. The male chicks are carried off on a special production belt to the gassing unit.
Waiting room. The crates on the dolly hold about 2000 chicks. These chicks have just left the incubator where they spent a total of three weeks. From here, the chicks will go through the process of being sexed, debeaked and vaccinated and after about five minutes will be carried by conveyor belt to roll off into another crate, ready for shipment to the layer chicken farm.
Quarantine. The smoking compartment in the canteen is there to combat infection. The fact is that staff are not allowed to leave the building during working hours. The company is hermetically sealed off from the world at large to minimize the risk of infection. There is overpressure throughout the interior to ensure that polluted air is kept out
Shower. Paul Steenbekkers is manager at one farm, Ven/Heide, where they keep 1700 sows and 3300 piglets. Paul works from seven-thirty in the morning until ten past four in the afternoon. All staff and visitors are required to take a shower before entering the farm and don a complete set of company clothes. These strict rules on hygiene have meant a reduction in the use of antibiotics in recent years of 70%. The administering of antibiotics was a preventive measure until 2009.
Growth. Sweet pepper producer De Wieringermeer grows red, yellow and green sweet peppers on a 40-hectare site. The colour is determined by the stage of the ripening process (green is unripe, red is ripe). The plants grow between 5 and 10 cm a week. The red-and-white ribbon marks off a compartment of one hectare. This division into hectares gives a good understanding of the growth process among young plants; the work can then be planned accordingly. Compared with tomatoes (25-30 cm per week) sweet peppers are much slower growers and therefore less labour-intensive.
Scaling-up. In 2012 Bosboom was obliged to expand to comply with new government rules. The family company now has 640 sows and an average of 7000 piglets.
The sows are housed together when not in pig. Each animal has 2.5 m2 run space. The gates on the boxes are only closed when the farmer makes his inspection after feeding time. The yellow feeders are attached to a two-line system which offers the pigs two types of feed. It means that the dosages can be accurately controlled to meet the pigs’ various needs. The doors lead to the farrowing pens.
2,400 m2. Torsius has three barns containing a total of 120,000 laying hens. Besides the standard free-range birds the hatchery (Dutch: broederij) has a further 5700 organic laying hens. This division has been chosen to keep production cost-effective.
At Torsius there is no need to debeak the chickens; the barns are minimally lit with special high-frequency strip lighting so that the chickens are kept calm. They also have enough distractions and enough room to move. Stressed-out chickens tend to peck others, something that happens a lot less at Torsius. Torsius produces about 100,000 eggs every day, putting it in the major league among hatcheries.
10.000 m2. A tomato plant grows 25 cm a week for 50 weeks and so attains a length of over 12 metres. This means that the plants continually need training and hanging on the support system. In a 10-hectare greenhouse this keeps eight to twelve people occupied full-time. Ella hangs 1000 plants an hour.
Pasture. The Brandsma Dairy Farm is a dynamic-organic company of 55 cows and 25 sheep. Brandsma is widely known as an ‘ear-tag objector’. In all, there are 21 Dutch farmers who refuse to attach plastic tags to their animals’ ears. For them, ear tagging is a violation of the animal’s integrity.After 20 years of legal wrangling, these farmers are allowed to register their animals using the traditional I&R method, that is, hide brands and other surface marks . The sanction for not adhering to the generally obtaining legislation is a 20% penalty on EU surcharge rights.For six months in the year, Brandsma’s cows have free access to the pastures around the barn. In general they are only indoors to be milked by the milking robot. Thirty per cent of Dutch dairy cows graze on pasture. For the product to qualify as pasture milk, the cows need to graze outdoors for 120 days a year, 6 hours a day.
Lavatory. In the VIC (which translates as Swine Innovation Centre), Wageningen University is working with trade and industry on innovations in pig husbandry. Research on Pigsy, a toilet for pigs, began in 2012. Its development was informed by the pig’s natural behaviour. A pig usually looks first for a place to sleep and then – at a comparatively great distance away – a place to defecate. The research focuses on stimulating and facilitating this natural behaviour as much as possible within the confines of a standard company. Piglets are trained early on to relieve themselves in a special corner of the shed.A major advantage is that the faeces can be collected at a single central place and removed in a shorter time. This lowers the level of ammonia emissions in the shed, the advantage for the farmer being that there is no further need for air washers
Calf. In 2009 Arjan Klopman enlarged his veal farm and moved to Witveld, a designated agricultural development area or LOG. LOGs were developed in the wake of major outbreaks of animal diseases such as swine flu and foot-and-mouth. LOG locations are more isolated and at a remove from heavily populated areas. Their purpose is to be able to tackle outbreaks of disease more quickly and destroy affected livestock with less impact on neighbouring companies. Additionally, LOGs are not allowed to have too many of the same kind of company, so as to avoid cross infection. That said, a LOG gives intensive cattle farms the opportunity to grow. In relocating to Witveld, Klopman has been able to expand his stock from 528 to 1168 calves. This increase was necessary to keep the business cost-effective. The calves now have 11% more room than legally required: 2 m2 instead of 1.8.
Zander. The Lub brothers set up their company in Andijk in 2009 after their freshwater fishery took an economic downturn. The family still has just one fishing boat. The company opted to breed zander (snoekbaas in Dutch), one freshwater fish species for which there was still a market. As fish farming is still a fairly new branch of industry they regularly encounter teething trouble, which they seek to address together with researchers from Wageningen and Leiden Universities.
Examined. In 2012 the animal welfare organization Wakker Dier (‘Animal Awake’) launched a campaign against industrially bred broiler chickens. Wakker Dier gave this breed the name ‘plofkip’ (chicken fit to burst) because of its rapid growth within six weeks from a chick to a 2.3 kilo bird, having consumed exactly 3.7 kilos of feed to get there. The JA 957-type chickens of the organic broiler breeder Hubbard take ten weeks to grow into a bird of 2.8 kilos and consume exactly 6.5 kilos of feed. The chicken in the photograph is getting a health check from a vet at the request of Wakker Dier.
119 kg. A calf can be regarded as a by-product of the dairy industry. In dairy farming, cows must produce a calf every year to keep providing sufficient milk. The males serve no purpose on a dairy farm and are transported to veal calf farms between the ages of two and four weeks. On arrival the calves weigh about 45 kilos, but after seven months this will have risen to six times as much. During those seven months each animal is fed 200 kilos of maize, 120 kilos of dry food, 20 kilos of straw and 350 kilos of powdered milk, much of which consists of whey, a waste product of the milk and cheese industry.Klopman produces ‘white’ meat. Especially popular in Italy, this meat type contains less iron, which gives it its lighter colour.
Semi-finished. With brown poultry it is possible to breed a variety that makes a visual distinction between a hen and a cock. A young female is brown and a young male white. This difference is essential at a hatchery for layer chickens, as males don’t lay eggs.The selection process is now less complicated and can be carried out by eye by non-specialized staff. Using a conveyor belt, 20,000 brown and white chicks can be separated every hour.The above-named difference is irrelevant for broilers as both sexes are bred for meat production.
Export. To avoid the fish becoming dehydrated they are coated in a glaze solution. The deep-frozen fish are then drawn through a shallow layer of water. This treatment, which is sometimes done repeatedly, adds to the weight of the fish so that more can be sold for less.
19 C. In 2011 CombiVliet set up a production facility in Wieringermeer where it grows only tomatoes. The greenhouses are artificially lit from October to March for a total of 2250 to 2500 hours. The electricity the company needs to light the 240,000 m2 of glass comes from the general energy grid. In the service building alongside the greenhouse an energy company has installed combined heat and power plants to generate electricity which is then fed into the grid. The residual heat – normally an unusable waste product of energy generation – is used to heat the greenhouse. An additional advantage is that the waste gas CO2, released when energy is generated, is absorbed by the plants, thereby improving their growth
Infusion.PlantLab conducts research into ways to exploit the potentials of plants to the full. By optimizing plant growth conditions (the ideal mix of water, light, nutrition, CO2 and temperature) the company seeks to revolutionize plant cultivation. This research gives each plant species its own sophisticated growth programme. According to PlantLab, this way plants produce up to ten times more than in a regular greenhouse and use something like 90% less water. And there are no pesticides involved. Once in balance, a plant treated this way proves to be no longer susceptible to diseases and epidemics.
Expert. Renata is a ‘clipper’ and sits at the end of a conveyor belt. Her job is to clip the trusses to the right proportions. An average truss weighs 700 grams. The machine has to provide portions of one kilo. Renata estimates the weights and collects and clips the portions to the correct total weight, after which the machine takes over. Her job is quite uncommon in an industry in which just about everything is automated.
Homogenization. These days milk is homogenized because consumers were averse to the cream collecting naturally at the top. Homogenization involves forcing milk at high pressure through a very fine sieve so as to reduce the size of the fat globules to stop the fat rising to the surface.Before being allowed into the factory, milk from the farm is checked for the presence of antibiotics and other substances that could hamper the growth of yogurt cultures and endanger the production process.
Data. Every year, the data centre of the Ministry of Economic Affairs processes over 21 million registrations (this number based on the figures for 2012). An Identification and Registration (I&R) system for livestock has been set up in accordance with EU regulations. All data on cattle, sheep, goats and pigs are registered here. Anyone owning at least one of the above-named animals is legally obliged to identify it and register it in the I&R databank. This databank contains for every animal an identification code, the date of birth, sex, hair colour, the mother’s identification code, the numbers of every company where the animal has been, the dates of all relocations and the date of death or slaughter. In the event of an infectious disease or a threat to public health, the animals and their provenance can be quickly traced on the basis of these data.
Playground. Varketing is a consortium of five entrepreneurs who have joined forces in a bid to achieve greater innovation and greater returns. The new firm was established by Evert and Carolien Hendrikx in 2011 in Witveld, an ‘agricultural development area’ in Grubbenvorst, near the German border. When developing the new company site the firm saw to all manner of improvements that would enhance the living conditions and health of the animals in their charge. For example, groups of pigs are kept together during the entire production process to prevent diseases from spreading. This almost entirely rules out the need for antibiotics. The pens for piglets from 6 to 25 kilos satisfy the legal requirements that stipulate 0.4 m2 of living space for a piglet.
Rejected. Nijsen/Granico is a producer of animal feeds, most notably pig feeds. The company is specialized in processing surplus food products. This it calls Food for Feed; high-grade rejected products from the food industry such as confectionery, biscuits, chocolate, bread, cake and dough are processed as semi-finished products for pig feed with a high energy value. Every week, the company processes 1600 tonnes of returned food into feed. The company dissolves huge quantities of sugared confection in water. This syrup is sold under the name ‘confectionery syrup premium’. This is used as an addition to pig feed but also as a taste improver in dairy farming, when it is added to silage (a fodder fermented and stored for winter use as cattle feed).
-196 C.A bull produces an average of 480 doses per approved ejaculation. A popular bull can supply up to 300,000 doses in its lifetime. Each such dose is collected in a straw. The straws are stored in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196 degrees Celsius. Every beaker holds 3000 straws. Altogether there are some 600,000 straws in a container. The colour, together with a code, name and date, makes each straw unique.
Collecting. A calf’s liver has an average weight of 4.5 kilos and after removal of the carcass cools off to 1 degree Celsius within 24 hours. The racks speed up the cooling process and prevent damage to the delicate organ tissue.
Archiving. The Animal Health Service (Gezondheidsdienst voor Dieren, or GD) works with farmers, veterinary practitioners, government and agricultural organizations to improve animal health in the Netherlands. Farmers can have their livestock checked by the GD for possible infections or other health problems. Armed with the results, the GD advises farmers on how they can avoid or solve problems. By comprehensively monitoring Dutch livestock, the GD can track down problems at an early stage and identify new diseases. The company boasts one of the world’s largest veterinary laboratories.