We are all very familiar with what not changing a food system looks like. In the US it looks like this where Joe Biden is funnelling money to big meat and dairy supposedly to help climate action. In Europe, it looks like this where the EU continues to give billions to subsidise animal agriculture.
Why it can be difficult to change the Food System
There are a number of barriers (or system lock-ins) hindering a more rapid transition to plant based food systems and the below image outlines some of them.
In Ireland all of these apply. For example, the annual wage of Beef farmers is €15k and the general public are very sensitive to food inflation, so farmer poverty and the cost of food are important barriers to change. You also have a concentration of power in farmer organisations like the Irish Farmers Association and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association who are fully supported by all the Irish political parties. Then you have Institutional lock-ins such as the Department of Agriculture and Bord Bia and the EU Commission, who also support Beef and Dairy systems. Agricultural Research Lock-ins include Teagasc and Ireland’s Universities, although the latter are also starting to do plant based research. Finally, you have technological lock-ins where you have everything from refrigeration to baby milk formula to animal breeding encouraging meat and dairy. Fortunately, today we have extensive plant based food technologies as well as the more healthy whole foods straight from the farmer.
Finally, a number of countries in Europe are just starting to shift their protein systems towards plant based foods. This article is taking a look at some initiatives in the Netherlands, where a shift towards a more plant based food system has already put down some tentative roots and is certain to continue to blossom.
In 2018, the Dutch national campaign ‘Week ZonderVlees’ or ‘Week Without Meat’ was started to encourage citizens to adopt a more vegetarian or ‘flexitarian’ diet. The annual campaign challenges people to eliminate animal products from their diet for one week, inspiring them to eat less meat and dairy on a regular basis. In 2019, the municipality of Amsterdam announced that vegetarian food would be the default at government catered events, unseating meat as a menu staple and making plant-based the norm. In the future, the city of Amsterdam plans to encourage citizens to eat 50% plant-based by 2030 and 60% by 2040. This involves making animal product alternatives more available throughout the city’s grocery stores and promoting meat and dairy alternatives.
Meanwhile the Dutch parliament passed a non-binding motion calling for its government to end live imports of baby calves from the dairy industry in Ireland and other countries. The text of the motion specifically names Ireland, noting that calf exports from here to the Netherlands have increased this year compared to last year. The text of the motion, translated from Dutch, says: “Noting that the long-distance transport of very young calves involves serious animal suffering; noting that the number of calves imported from Ireland has already increased…noting that the import of calves for the veal calf sector, moreover…does not fit within circular agriculture or animal dignity…[ the house] calls on the government to come up with a plan to end import of calves.” The motion was put forward by House of Representatives member Leonie Vestering, who is a member of the Party for Animals. 82 of the House of Representatives’ 149 voting members backed the motion. What action the Dutch government will take will depend on the results of the election. Irish calf exports to the Netherlands reached 103,489 head in the first half of 2023, a 10% increase on the figure for the same period of 2022, which was just over 94,000.
There is also change coming in the advertising sector, where two municipalities in the Netherlands, Bloemendaal, in North Holland, and Utrecht, the fourth largest municipality in the country, have recently voted to ban the advertising of meat and dairy products in public spaces along with banning advertisements for petrol/diesel cars and airline tickets. They have now joined the City of Haarlem, where a ban on the advertising of meat is expected to come into force in 2024 as we reported on here. The Utrecht municipality said in a statement that it is committed to taking the necessary actions to reduce CO2 emissions and that growing and transporting livestock feed results in deforestation and the release of greenhouse gases, thereby contributing to global warming.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has been discussing where to allocate future agricultural subsidies. Piet Adema, the Netherlands’ Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, said at a recent EU meeting that under no circumstances should the European Union provide subsidies for meat production. He argued that subsidies should be for sustainable and healthy products, aligning with the broader European policy of promoting sustainable production and reducing meat and alcohol consumption, reported Boerderij. In the European context this change could significantly contribute to the EU reducing its climate changing emissions but this will be fiercely contested by meat and dairy lobbyists. It is important that it is introduced in a way that does not decrease the incomes of poorer farmers as they transition either to restoring nature or to plant based production.
Change is also happening at the individual level in the Netherlands, where retailers have reportedly seen declining sales of meat products for nine consecutive quarters, with a 13% drop compared to the first quarter of 2019. Higher prices and lower purchasing power are believed to be a major cause of the change. A recent report revealed that the Dutch have the highest consumption of plant-based foods per capita and the Netherlands is the 6th largest plant-based market in Europe.
And the business sector is also contributing to change as the country is one of the most dynamic plant-based markets in Europe. The Amsterdam area is home to many food industry leaders that are pioneering more sustainable and plant-based alternatives. From plant-based cheese producer Willicroft expanding sales across Europe to the unveiling of the world’s first meatball made of cultured mammoth meat (proving meat production is possible without animal suffering and environmental damage), the city is a hotbed for food focused innovation. In fact, last year Amsterdam was named 2nd best place in Europe for agtech and food startups and recently hosted the 1st annual Plant FWD conference – a 1-day plant-based convention that focuses on connecting businesses, investors, talent and policy makers to transition to a plant-based future.
There is also change happening in the political system. In 2019 the European Court of Justice ruled that the oversight system for Dutch nitrogen emissions was not good enough. In response, the highest administrative court in the Netherlands ruled that government laws for granting permits for construction projects and agricultural activities, which emit large amounts of nitrogen, were in breach of EU legislation. The Dutch Government issued a policy outlining how it would reduce animal agriculture in the country. This proposed a six-year master plan to increase plant protein production and consumption, and approved cultivated meat and seafood tastings after investing €60M in cellular agriculture last year – plus, it set aside €25B to buy out livestock farms and limit the number of animals reared for human food. This resulted in the usual farmer protests, which were followed by the formation of a new political party and the eventual collapse of the Dutch Government. You can read about these events in this article and for an in depth look at the political shifts I would recommend the Mongabay Series of articles.