Henk Wildschut

2011 - 2013

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 Document Nederland 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.

My research focused especially on farmers and entrepreneurs who were looking for innovation. This group interested me because they were trying to resolve food-related issues that were both relevant and urgent. Visually too, I felt, this presented the greatest contrast between a consumer-driven romanticized ideal and the reality of food production.

I soon discovered that economic pressures and legislation relating to public health, the environment and animal welfare largely dictate the way many cutting-edge entrepreneurs work. To survive they are forced to cross over from traditional production processes to industrial methods where efficiency and scaling-up are all-important. This is just as true of organic production.

Add to this the fact that these days producers are judged by inspection bodies and consumers on the tiniest misstep. Every infection or disease can cause great economic damage. Given the ever diminishing profit margins for producers, any setback of this order is one too many.

Increasingly, then, our food is created in a clean world of rules and protocols. Regulations such as the new laws on the use of antibiotics are compelling poultry and pig farmers to do everything in their power to prevent infection, the result being that they are as good as hermetically sealed off from the outside world. This is not to prevent consumers from seeing what happens behind the scenes, but to cater to those consumers' wishes for safe and inexpensive food.

The fact that current solutions to many food-related issues often have consumers up in arms can be blamed in part on the food industry itself. Thinking of profits, they paint a romanticized picture of the way things are. These are the images we love to see: cows in the meadow, farmers on tractors bringing vegetables to the supermarket. At the same time critics are alerting us to the flipside of intensive and industrial food production with soundbites like ‘plofkip’ (literally, a chicken fit to burst) and 'pig towers'.

Given our unprecedented interest these days in how our food is produced, such conflicting reports only sow confusion. However aware we are of seductive sales techniques and marketing strategies, we still prefer, against our better judgement, that romanticized picture than to see the situation as it really is.

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.

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  • 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’ (Dutch initials LOG;) 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.
    No distinction needs making between female and male chicks when breeding broilers, as both sexes are suitable for meat production.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Torsius has three barns containing a total of 120,000 laying hens. These produce about 100,000 eggs a day, putting Torsius in the major league among hatcheries.
    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.

  • 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.

  • In 2011 Verbeek Hatchery Holland opened a new hatchery in Zeewolde with a capacity of 30 million day old chicks a year. This accounts for almost half the Dutch market for layer chickens.
    Thirty to forty per cent of this annual production is for export. Besides countries in Europe Verbeek exports to the Middle East, South Africa and further afield. Eight per cent of the chicks are for the organic market and 92% for the regular market
    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.

  • The consumer products department meets orders as they come in from supermarkets for shelf-ready products. This department plays a comparatively small role in the overall production. Chantal works to a strict hygiene protocol so as not to endanger the product’s safety or its storage life.

  • 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.