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Research project

What does your meat eat? A global environmental history of Dutch livestock feed (1954-2020)

Status: Ongoing

What does the meat on your plate eat? Huge amounts of feed from all over the world made Dutch factory farming possible. I research historical changes in the origins of that feed and its global consequences for societies and environments. This is critical for present-day debate about the health and environmental impacts of the livestock industry.

What we do

About our project

Feed problems
Your meat has to eat. A lot. Millions of tons of feed are shipped across oceans to make intensive livestock farming possible. This creates global and local problems. Animal feed production competes with human food production. Soy for feed connects the destruction of the South American rain forest to the Dutch nitrogen crisis. Problems like these will multiply, as the global demand for meat and dairy is burgeoning. Currently, we fail to address these issues properly because of vested economic interests, scientific reductionism, and ad hoc measures.

Societal relevance
This project helps by offering new historical research on the long-distance and long-term impact of a neglected commodity: livestock feed. It is of great democratic value to fully inform the fierce societal debate about ‘factory farms’. We can only decide on the future direction of intensive livestock farming, if we understand the long-term and long-distance societal impact of the feed that makes this farming possible. What we feed our meat determines what we feed ourselves, and matters globally.

The project
By focusing on feed commodities imported from across the globe to Dutch farms between 1954 and 2020, the project’s objectives contribute to three fields: history of science, environmental history, and global history. The first objective is to demonstrate the significance of imported feed as a scientific technology. The second is to better connect its global production and local consumption by investigating the feed’s invisible impact around the world in cultural, social, environmental, and health terms. To obtain a balanced view, I analyze a wide variety of sources produced by different stakeholders, and use digital humanities and oral history methodologies.

Our research focus

1. A new kind of animal feed
Part one focuses on the major shift in how pigs, poultry, and cattle were fed in the Netherlands. A new kind of animal feed – ‘compound feed’ – was an important scientific technology. The rise of compound feed as a new technology made large-scale industrial livestock farming possible, driven by unprecedentedly large imports of livestock feed commodities from ‘shadow places’ elsewhere.

2. Animal feed’s shadow places in the Netherlands
In this project, ecofeminist philosopher Plumwood’s concept of ‘shadow places’ refers to the places used for feed production, trade, and consumption that remain relatively invisible, in particular to consumers in the global north. Part two focuses on shadow places in the Netherlands: it historicizes controversies about environmental and health consequences of the consumption of compound feed. Examples include excess manure (e.g. the present-day ‘nitrogen crisis’), spread of zoonotic diseases, and the use of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals in the feed.

3. Animal feed’s shadow places in the global south
Part three studies how and why feed production places in the global south became ‘shadow places’ in the Netherlands, and when and why instances of sudden visibility occurred. Who did, and who did not problematize the feed’s external costs outside the Netherlands? This part focuses on three major controversies: around anchoveta fishmeal from Peru, soy from Brazil, and tapioca (cassava meal) from Thailand.

Funds & Grants

Veni-grant of the Dutch Research Council (project number VI.Veni.201H.017)


Animals in Science and Society Veterinary Medicine Faculty, and Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Utrecht University

Prof.dr.ir. Imke de Boer, Livestock & Sustainable Food Systems, Wageningen University & Research

Centre for Environment Humanities, Utrecht University

Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich

Prof.dr.ir. Erik van der Vleuten and dr. Evelien de Hoop, Dutch Research Council (NWO)-funded project ‘Soy Stories: Connected sustainability histories and futures of the global Soyacene’, Technical University Eindhoven and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


Haalboom, Floor, ‘Oceans and Landless Farms: Linking Southern and Northern Shadow Places of Industrial Livestock (1954-1975)’, Environment and History 28:4 (2022) 571-599.

Haalboom, Floor, ‘1953: De schijf van vijf voor varkens’, in: Lex Heerma van Voss e.a. (red.), Nog meer wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland (Ambo Anthos: Amsterdam, 2022) 565-570

Haalboom, Floor, ‘De man die de Nederlandse bio-industrie van voer voorzag én daar zo zijn ecologische bedenkingen bij had’, Wonderkamer: Magazine voor wetenschapsgeschiedenis 5 (2022) 51-56.

Haalboom, Floor, 'Deze uitvinding gaf de bio-industrie vleugels', Dutch Online journalistic platform De Correspondent (January 28, 2022)

Our team

Floor (A.F.) Haalboom PhD, assistant professor medical and environmental history, principal investigator
Jeroen Breekveldt, research assistant

Contact person for the project is Floor Haalboom (a.haalboom@erasmusmc.nl).