Shared pain

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.