With the dog on a leash I walk along the bank of a small ditch. A majestic swan floats in the middle of the water and eyes Maus suspiciously. A little further on a cat crosses the street. We continue and pass fresh green weeping willows and a group of coots whose startled flutter makes large circles in the pond. I look with my eyes, Maus with his nose; the noise of the coots does not distract him from his hunt. When I leave the residential area, the landscape opens up. A few cows are slowly chewing their breakfast.
There is a lot going on around Dutch cows at the moment. After the milk quota was abolished in 2015, farmers have greatly expanded their companies, which led to a higher production of manure. Too much manure is harmful to the environment, which is why there is a European standard for the amount of manure that a country can produce. Dutch farmers with a lot of grassland can use an excepting rule, which allows them to use more fertilizer than the normal amount.
Now that there are so many more cows and the manure surplus has increased, Brussels has warned that the exeption rule may be revoked. The response of the Dutch government was to force all dairy farmers to return to the number of animals they had in 2015. This also applies to companies that can use all their manure on their own land. Thousands of cows are slaughtered or sold abroad. Five hundred farmers already saw no other choice than to give up their business.
Organic farmers do not benefit from the measure because they do not use the exception rule to fertilize more. Yet they also have to reduce their herds. Wakker Dier is campaigning to get attention for the forced slaughter of organically raised cows. The outrage is perhaps somewhat selective: generally, all dairy cows are slaughtered when they are only six years old, because they produce less milk after that. As a vegan, I think those deaths are just as pointless as the mass slaughter that is taking place at the moment.
Yet it is good to reflect on the death of all the dairy cows in the Netherlands, organic or not, that are marked as “superfluous” by the government. It is the result of strangely wavering agricultural policies, and the grief caused by this senseless suffering can bring animal activists and cattle farmers closer together. The relationship between these two groups in the Netherlands is strained to say the least. Last year, for example, there was a row around Marianne Thieme and a chicken farmer in Waddinxveen. I regret this, because a dialogue is much more useful than insults going back and forth.
The dilemma of the farmers is that they want to keep a beautiful family business going, but also respect the animals. To me, Jonathan Safran Foer goes to the core of this in his book Eating animals:
At the end of the day, factory farming isn’t about feeding people; it’s about money. Barring some rather radical legal and economic changes, it must be.
If farming is only about money, the animal becomes a product. And you do not have to be vegan to sense that a cow is different from a Lego figurine that rolls out of the factory. If anyone knows that their animals are not things, it is the farmers; but if they do not get good prices for their products because the consumer expects their cheap carton of milk and piece of meat, scaling up seems the only way to stay afloat. Market dependence makes life difficult for both farmers and the animals they keep.
I would really like to see animal rights activists and farmers trying to increase understanding of each other, instead of judging the other party. In these difficult times, I hope we can find each other in our shared pain at the death of so many magnificent animals.