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The Tale of the Happy Cow

Historian Veronika Settele studies the history of animal husbandry in Germany.

May 18, 2016

Fields, a pigsty, chicken coop, tractor, a farm dog, and a big house in the middle – that’s the image many Germans have of farms to this day. Most of them are probably aware that it is no longer accurate, but very few know what conditions are truly like on Germany’s turkey, pig, and cattle farms.

For the camera: Modern agriculture is less romantic.

For the camera: Modern agriculture is less romantic.
Image Credit: Fotolia/ahavelaar

Still less of the public is aware of how coops and pens have grown into true “factories” of a type people prefer not to envision today – especially not when looking down at a piece of meat on a plate.

In her dissertation at the Friedrich Meinecke Institut at Freie Universität, Veronika Settele is studying the history of animal husbandry in Germany between 1950 and 1980, a chapter that has been little explored in the past. “You are what you don’t eat! Health and diet since 1850” was the name of a conference that Settele recently organized with her colleague Norman Aselmeyer at Freie Universität

The conference offered case studies from Europe, Japan, Russia, Brazil, and the United States to show how formative – and how different – the ideas of how to eat right and what constitutes a healthy diet have been during different eras, and how much this was connected with social, political, and technological factors.

This is also apparent from the trend in consumption of meat in recent history: While the German populace consumed about 37 kilograms of meat per person per year in 1950, the figure had risen to more than 100 kilograms by 1980. “For a long time, meat was considered essential to a healthy diet,” Settele says, explaining the heavy focus on meat during the postwar period.

Changing eating habits was one factor driving change in livestock practices, she says. While there were still many small farms in 1950, practices that aimed to produce meat more efficiently became established in Germany over the next three decades.

The idea of an animal as an individual living creature with all the phases of life from birth to slaughter faded into the background. Farms came to specialize in a single animal species and even a single stage of the animals’ lives, such as fattening bulls or rearing piglets, and technological advances such as the milking machine made it possible to keep and manage larger and larger numbers of livestock with less and less human labor.

Settele says it was a time of great optimism and faith in progress, dominated by fantasies of exploring the limits of feasibility. It was not uncommon for new methods of keeping livestock to be tested in experimental form. As an example, she cites the practice of keeping cattle in open stables in the former East Germany during the late 1950s.

To increase animal production and make up for the shortfall in supply, East German farmers took an especially radical approach to intensive animal production. In this method, the animals were kept in stables without walls, with merely a roof to protect them from the rain. But the experiment, which had been successfully tested in the south of the Soviet Union before then, went awry in Germany. Young animals could not survive the Mecklenburg winter, and cows’ milk production declined due to the cold.

“Throughout the industry, across the board, a scientific and mechanistic understanding of animals was predominant,” Settele says. “Any and all methods of keeping livestock were considered good as long as the animals were productive enough,” she adds, explaining that there was little criticism of factory farming or industrial meat production in Germany at the time.

Even the pacifist and ecological movements of the 1970s paid little attention to agriculture, she says, focusing more on the soil, rivers, and trees. “The movement was also about animal welfare, but more in terms of forest animals and wildlife facing habitat loss,” she explains.

It was not until the 1990s, with the rise of organic farming, that an alternative model of mass-producing meat came to widespread prominence. “Our viewpoint today is an uncertain one, and rightly so,” Settele says.

Meat producers use a romanticized image of farming in their advertising, while animal welfare and animal rights groups present shocking reports from inside farms at the same time. “Fewer and fewer people have contact with animal husbandry, so there are big gaps in what consumers know about how animal production works in modern agriculture, and how it has developed,” Settele explains.

She says that a historical look at the decades since 1950, during which animal husbandry in Germany has undergone rapid industrialization, can help to eliminate uncertainty and allow people to take their own positions, removed from both the idyllic view and the shocking one.


Further Information

Veronika Settele, Researcher, Friedrich Meinecke Institute, Tel.: +49 30 838 72786, Email: veronika.settele@fu-berlin.de