The pragmatic way Dutch farmers transformed their approach after the outbreak of WWII should be inspiration for our present situation. Due to an impending food shortage during turbulent times, they showed unprecedented resilience by dealing with the crisis directly – making the Netherlands self-sufficient in the process.
“Livestock farming made way for arable farming. The daily menu contained much less meat and fat,” according to the Dutch Resistance Museum. “The population experienced this change as an impoverishment, with people feeling hungry and sometimes losing weight. Yet, in fact, nothing was lacking. Later research showed the daily menu became healthier than before 1940."
After the war, agriculture continued to undergo radical reform as it chased two main objectives: more prosperity and leisure-time for our farmers, and affordable food for all. A wave of mechanization, specialization and scaling – often with disruptive consequences for the countryside – ensured these goals were reached. And indeed, the results are impressive: hunger is history and tiny Netherlands is the world's second largest agricultural exporter after the USA. But these achievements come at a price – one paid for by the animals we consume and the environment.
Make the sharing fairer
War has returned to Europe. Ukrainian grain is not finding its way to the people who rely on it. Less grain from Ukraine will not directly lead to hunger in Europe, but it is expected it will in North Africa and the Middle East, as Veerle Vrindts and Rutger Bregman clearly explained in the Dutch national newspaper NRC on 8 June 2022. However, it is possible to distribute the available grain more fairly, so that no child has to go hungry. In fact, we already grow more than enough to feed everyone. But currently we are feeding these good grains to millions of pigs, cows and chickens that then convert it inefficiently into meat, milk and eggs.
Cereals for the people
We can solve the impending grain shortage by following the example of the Dutch at the outbreak of WWII. They solved the food shortage by reducing livestock. As a result, less animal feed was needed and they were able to feed more hungry mouths. So, shouldn’t we do the same today? And if we no longer grow animal feed, we can also prevent future competition between food and feed – in other words, between people (in Africa and the Middle East) and consumption animals (in the EU). Meanwhile, we can simply let cows graze on fields where nothing else grows. And we can feed pigs and chickens with residue and waste by-products released during food production for people. In this way we turn a grain shortage into a surplus.
More dignified existence
The consequence will be the same as what happened at the outbreak of WWII: we have to reduce the livestock considerably. This means cutting back on meat and dairy. But meanwhile, we can offer the remaining consumption animals a more dignified existence, while at the same time contributing to healthier daily menu and a future-proof global food system.