The history of the dutch dairy industry and the impact of its lobbies

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Dutch polders on peat soils
The milk brigade featured in the Belgian Tintin magazine. We can read ““Hard?... No not really. It is just that I drink milk, Captain! Well, the M brigade is the As brigade!...”
A poster featuring Joris Driepinter. We can read “I drink milk. You too? You have to drink milk, milk does you good”
The 2017 logo of Campina op school

Extract of the talk given during The Soft Protest, re-chewing & Digest's dinner
in October 2019 at Corridor project space in Amsterdam.

“A flat, bright green, grassy field, a windmill, a herd of black and white cows grazing. That is one of the first images that comes to mind when picturing “The Netherlands”. The Netherlands: “the country of dairy”…
In fact, the numbers are quite astonishing… The Netherlands is the 4th biggest producer of dairy products in Europe, producing nearly as much milk as the UK or Poland, two countries 4 to 5 times larger. But even more impressive, it is the 3rd biggest exporter of milk in the world, and 2nd largest exporter of cheese.

How could a country so small be, today, one of the leaders of the “dairy world”?

In reality, the dutch not only play a major part in the contemporary landscape of dairy but have largely contributed to shape it from the very beginning. The power of the dutch dairy industry has been, if fact, built on 9 centuries of technological development and mass-industrialization. How this came to be relies on three factors: the country’s unusual geography, its commercial power and its heavy propaganda.

It is first important to consider that, throughout history, the dutch, literally, built their own land. Nearly 20% of the country has been, in fact, brought out from the waters. And indeed, from the 11th to the 15th century, farmers reclaimed more than 70% of today’s agricultural land from the sea; and they did so with an elaborate system which relied for a large part on… cattle.
Here is how it went. A land owner would rent his land for very little money to a group of independent farmers. He would build a small village at the start of a strip of land and would then assign parts of it to each farmer. The farmer would dug a ditch for drainage along his plot to create drier soil and establish his field on it. Due to the work on the land, the level of the soil would slowly decrease and the groundwater would rise, creating very rich mineral soil covered with grass but very difficult to grow crops on. The only choice for the farmer was therefore to leave cows feed on it and re-establish his field further away. He would then sell the dairy and meat from his cows, use the money to rent a new portion of the land, extend his ditch, dewater, cultivate crops and when the groundwater would rise again, be forced to raise livestock again. How long he would be able to keep following this process would only depend on his contract and how much land was still to be reclaimed from the sea. Evidently, this system led to an exponential development of livestock farming and the production of tremendous quantities of milk.

Being a wet land, subject to constant flooding, the dutch farmers did not have the possibility, as the french did for instance with cheese, to stock and mature milk for years. Instead they would condition it for transport and trade it as soon as possible, therefore avoiding any chance of spoilage. (Even today the “oude kaas”, the “old dutch cheese” is matured for considerably little time in comparaison to a conventional french or italian cheese).
Being proficient traders, the dutch flooded, from the 12th century onwards, the european market from all sides, making their dairy industry a real expending sector of their economy, way above the standards of the time. In a matter of five centuries, most farmers from Holland and the northern territories of Friesland stopped growing crops altogether to focus solely on livestock, multiplying their production by four and transforming artisanal cattle farming into proefficient “industrial systems”. They developed concentrated feeds for the winter, breeding strategies, as well as buying young dairy cows from neighboring countries like Denmark and selling back their yearly calves right after being born. Visionaries or not, our contemporary dairy industries are based on principles developed by the dutch more than 400 years ago.

As we explained and as the numbers still prove today, the dutch dairy industry was and still is structurally based on export. And, to have a system based on export, means “big money”, of course, but also means that when export is made impossible, in times of war for instance, the industry is, consequently, left with tremendous surpluses. Then, who to sell to? The dutch milk lobby found the solution at the start of the 20th century, and it was the simplest of all… they would sell their surplus to a group of consumers who was not particularly fond of milk, nor used to drink it: the dutch population.
After the first world war, the dutch dairy producers united and founded the “Crisis-Zuivelbureau”, “the dairy office for crisis”. In cooperation with communication agencies, the organization started to push milk consumption through various strategies, with the same key word: “gezondheid”, “health”. The organization began its work by targeting an easy target: the children. With the help of the government, it began to offer cartons of milk to children in schools, for which the teachers would reserve fifteen minutes, every morning, for milk drinking. Members of the fictional “Milk brigade”, which inserted itself in children’s favorite magazines (like Tintin magazine for example), also became extremely popular. Children could become a member of the brigade by logging in a special notebook the number of extra glasses of milk they would drink in addition to their daily portion. If, after 30 days, the logbook was full, the Dairy Office would then promote the children to Milk officers. And Milk officers were strong just like “Joris Driepinter”, “Jories three glasses”, a young character, member of the Milk brigade who, by drinking his daily three glasses of milk, would defeat the most evil vilains. His adventures would be featured in comic books, commercials and street posters, which would then be read with the teacher, in class.

We can see written on one poster: “The game is over you evil pirate! But how could I loose? O, well it is quite clear... You’ve been defeated by Joris Driepinter! And, why is Joris Driepinter so brave? Because he drinks 3 glasses of milk every day (or yogurt or buttermilk). You should do it too!”

These vintage examples can today sound quite creative and frankly, clever. However, it is quite relevant to consider that these campaigns were supported by the dutch government, helping the dairy lobby fund its commercial stunts by literally diverting tax money, or letting it dispose of its stocks in public schools. That is what we would call today: industrial propaganda. And this propaganda is, surprisingly enough, still at work today.

Friesland Campina is the world’s largest dairy cooperative and one of the top 5 dairy companies in the world. For more than 50 years, this dutch company has been supplying milk to Dutch children through its “Schoolmelkprogramma”, its “School Milk Program”. Collaborating directly with the schools, Campina’s program ables parents to offer to their child a daily carton of Campina milk (for approximately 2€ per week) which will be given to the child by his teacher. In 2010, the Campina School Milk Program, which was, for more subtelty, renamed simply, Campina at School (Campina op school), said to be helping more than a hundred thousand dutch children to grow tall and strong, across three thousand schools for a yearly turnover of 10.6 million euros.

Milk is goed voor elk”, “Milk is good for each and everyone”. This seventy year old slogan has become today a common dutch saying. And indeed, it is by targeting everyone, local or foreigner, that the dutch cow came to be the leader of its field.

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