Some have described the Netherlands as a living laboratory for sustainable intensive livestock production, and it's easy to see why.
With 16.7 million people living with 11 million hogs, 80 million chickens and 400,000 cows in an area one-fifteenth the size of Manitoba, it is impossible for the animal industry there to operate below the public's radar.
Coinciding with the intensification of agriculture has been the rise of a well-funded, informed and highly mobilized animal welfare movement.
Tension between the two forces came to a head about a decade ago after a series of disease outbreaks caused catastrophic losses and widespread euthanasia, often of healthy but unmarketable livestock. These disasters left disturbing headlines and images in their wake and fed into the growing public distaste with the environmental and social costs of modern animal agriculture.
Governments were pushed into action and industry realized the status quo was no longer an option. Today, production protocols -- both regulatory and self-imposed -- in the Netherlands exceed European and global standards on animal welfare, environmental and social responsibility fronts. It goes without saying standards there are far ahead of what we have in Canada.
On a recent tour organized for a Canadian delegation courtesy of the Dutch Embassy in Washington, D.C., it became clear the costs of adapting to this new environment have been high for the producers, especially those on the front lines of developing new systems that work.
But so have the rewards, chiefly the emergence of working relationships between animal welfare advocates, the animal product supply chain and retailers that focus on market-based solutions rather than regulations.
In effect, there is a sharing of responsibility between producers, researchers, government and the marketing chain. Consumers are provided with the opportunity, and sometimes the obligation, to help finance change.
"The strategy is not to fight against economics," said Bert Van den Berg, director of policy for the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals, a 150-year-old organization that has 160,000 members and 30,000 volunteers. "We look for ways to get the market to improve animal welfare."
The SPA was one of the key forces behind a three-star system for sustainable and humane animal products that is now appearing on the labels of a growing number of products in Dutch supermarkets.
The star system identifies products that are produced according to a well-defined range of practices, such as providing more space, allowing the animals to express natural behaviour, ending practices such as boar castration, and improved energy efficiency.
While there are vegetarian activist groups in the milieu of animal welfare advocates, that is not the mandate of the Dutch SPA, he said. "We are not a vegetarian organization; we are an animal-protection organization. Most of our members become members because they like their dogs and cats."
"They can make informed choices with our ranking on animal products, but they are not against eating them," Van den Berg said. "Our motto is buy less and better."
Producers in the Netherlands have had to face the reality that while efficiency and productivity are key to their business success, it will be how well they get along with their non-farming neighbours that determines whether they will be in business at all.
We visited Gerbert Oosterlaken, who has recently constructed a new welfare-friendly sow barn complete with a public viewing lounge and ammonia scrubbers to control outside odours. He said he spent 2,800 euros per sow compared with the industry standard of 2,200 euros.
Oosterlaken said his hog herd is more productive and his operating costs are lower. Plus, having the stamp of approval from credible animal welfare groups has value in the marketplace.
"That's my licence to produce in the future," Oosterlaken said. "If they are standing here and blocking my gates because they don't agree with the way I produce, then we have a problem."
"They are standing at our back... and I am pleased with that. That's why I am confident that I can get a new market system that will finally sell my pigs for a better price," he said.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org