HHH column: Feeding fish to factory farms by Floor Haalboom

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by another member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contribution here. This month, the floor is for Floor Haalboom, a medical and environmental historian working at the Erasmus MC’s Medical Ethics, Philosophy and History Department.

Floor Haalboom

A “radical change” in the diet of farm animals attracted the interest of the Dutch Health Council – a body of experts advising the Dutch government on health issues – in the early 1960s. The object of their interest looked like this:

Powdered fishmeal. (Photo: Phu Thinh Co, Wikimedia Commons)

You might wonder why I’m bothering you with this. Processed animal feed looks detached from what it’s made of, coming from or going to: it even looks boring. But actually the opposite is the case. The Health Council was right: this kind of feed is a relatively recent historical phenomenon with major health, environmental and social consequences around the globe. That is reason enough for scholars interested in health, disease and environment to take the stuff more seriously.

Feeding farm animals this stuff was a sea-change and enabled the rise of intensive livestock or ‘factory’ farming in the twentieth century. This new kind of feed was called ‘compound feed’ – a twentieth century technological innovation that was to livestock farming what artificial fertiliser was to agriculture. Compound feed was created by scientific experts and produced in a factory to make the ‘modernisation’ of livestock farming possible. Pigs and chickens could be moved indoors to be fed in factory-like circumstances. In 1955, the Institute for Modern Livestock Feed (Instituut voor Moderne Veevoeding) proudly stated in its year report: “Thanks to compound feed in particular, the production of livestock has risen tremendously.”

New factory-like poultry farm fed by compound feed.
(Source: “Jaarverslag CLO-Controle De Schothorst 1968-1969”, p. 48)

The Dutch Health Council researched this “radical change” in farm animal diets, because it brought along bacterial problems – or “downsides of progress” as Health Council member and bacteriologist Charlotte Ruys put it. The feed contained Salmonella bacteria and antibiotics – concerning in themselves, and particularly in combination. In rapid succession, the Council published advice reports about these feed-related health issues in the 1960s, and several more would follow in the 1970s. In 1962, one particularly concerned Health Council member, veterinarian and bacteriologist Dan Kampelmacher, travelled to an important feed production place to study the source of the bacteria: Peru.

Peru was the main exporting country of a crucial compound feed ingredient: tiny anchovy fish ground up into “fishmeal”, which provided pigs and chickens in rich countries like the Netherlands with cheap protein. While compound feed changed pig and poultry farms into so-called “landless” farms at home, Kampelmacher discovered the shocking ecological circumstances in which the feed was produced in the Peruvian fishmeal plants. It changed his thinking about Salmonella ecology, while simultaneously the fishmeal plants were changing the marine ecology of the Humboldt Current. You can read the full story in my new open access Environment & History article called “Oceans and Landless Farms”.

Kampelmacher photographed bags of fishmeal ready to be shipped to Dutch farms in Callao, Peru (August 1963).
(Source: Archives of the Veeartsenijkundige Dienst 2.11.29, inv. nr. 779, Nationaal Archief Den Haag)

So, feeding fish to pigs and chickens linked the ocean, relatively poor production places like Peru, Chile and Angola and relatively rich consumption places like the Netherlands in ways that were often invisible but important. This is only one of the many stories that need to be told about what the meat on our plates actually eats itself. A large industry developed to produce the feed from many ingredients from all over the world, like American maize, Brazilian soy and Thai cassava. Scarce agricultural land was increasingly used to feed animals rather than human beings, and this continues to be the case today. After Salmonella, more feed-related health crises would follow, like the British “mad cow disease”, the Belgian dioxin crisis and issues with antibiotic resistance. Animal feed is at the heart of many urgent present-day problems.

Floor Haalboom’s research project is called “What does your meat eat? The global impact of Dutch livestock feed from 1954 up to the present”. The project is funded by the Dutch Research Council, NWO. Earlier, Floor worked on this theme as a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.
This blog was simultaneously published on the website of the White Horse Press.

Would you like to write the next HHH column? Please get in touch!