If you visit the Port of Rotterdam you will now be able to see a world first of its kind – a floating dairy farm. Riding one wave ahead of the right-on-trend urban farming movement, property company Beladon have created a “cow garden”, a three-level futuristic vision of glass, steel and concrete. And its first residents have just arrived on board.
But a farm floating on water? Why have such a thing? Minke and Peter van Wingerden, husband and wife business partners happened to be in New York in 2012, and witnessed firsthand the difficulties bringng fresh food into the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.. A floating farm, they decided, could produce food close to point of consumption, while at the same time neatly resolving the challenge posed by the scarcity of land within cities.
Beladon proudly call it “Transfarmation” and the company website sets out their priorities:-
- Animal welfare
- Producing healthy food in cities, close to the consumer
Sustainability and circularity
Putting to one side the question of animal welfare and healthy food for a moment, in terms of sustainability, the floating farm is indeed a thing of beauty. At least on the surface. The cows are fed with grass from local football fields, potato peel waste from the french fry industry, and chaff (bran) sifted from the flour in local windmills. This fodder which would otherwise go to waste is collected and delivered to the farm by electric cars. Water purified from the cow’s urine, will be used to grow red clover, alfalfa and grass under artificial light. A robot tops up the cows’ food stations and another scoops up the dry dung. The dung will be used on site, or sent to a nearby farm. On the floor below, the 1,000 litres of milk the cows produce daily will be processed into yogurt which will reach Rotterdam’s supermarket shelves with negligible transport costs, either financial or environmental. All good so far.
But with their neat cow poo disposal plan, Beladon seems not to have noticed the massive mountain of the stuff under which the Netherlands is already practically sinking. “The nation’s 1.8 million cows are producing so much manure that there isn’t enough space to get rid of it safely. As a result, farmers are dumping cow poo illegally, the country is breaking EU regulations on phosphates designed to prevent groundwater contamination, and the high levels of ammonia emissions are affecting air quality.” The Guardian
Any excess dung from the floating facility will just add to the pile. What Dutch farm near or far is going to want it?
The WWF is not a fan of all the cow poop either. It’s doing so much damage to the Dutch environment, last year the charity called for a 40% reduction of dairy herds. The Netherlands has the lowest level of biodiversity in Europe after Malta. The Guardian. Fewer dairy farms are needed, not more, floating or otherwise.
We’re not told if Beladon has a plan for what comes out the dairy cow’s other end. Cow burps are an even bigger emitter of methane than the poop. Emissions from either end of dairy cows across the planet together make up 4% of the world’s GHGs.
Milk, a healthy food?
It’s certainly promoted that way. But PETA gives the white stuff a big thumbs down. Check out their list of 12 reasons why they think cow’s milk is bad for you.
The NHS takes a different view. Its website says, “Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are great sources of protein and calcium. They can form part of a healthy, balanced diet.” But adds, “Unsweetened calcium-fortified dairy alternatives like soya milks, soya yoghurts and soya cheeses also count as part of this food group and can make good alternatives to dairy products.”
Good or bad, is it essential for human health? The Conversation examines the science, and concludes, “Milk and dairy foods are convenient and good value and provide lots of essential nutrients which are trickier to source from other foods.” But that “when it comes to health, the bottom line is we probably don’t need dairy in our diets.”
The Harvard Medical School blog agrees: “Keep in mind that eating a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of green leafy vegetables and nuts can better help you get the calcium and protein you need rather than relying too much on dairy.”
So if we don’t need it, why have it? There are plenty of good reasons to shun dairy apart from health.
Meanwhile, PETA’s simple slogan remains true
Nature intended mums’ milk for human babies, and a cow’s milk for hers, not for humans, young, old or in between.
Does Europe need more milk anyway?
In 2018, European Commissioner Phil Hogan warned of oversupply in the European milk market. He said that supplies of milk had “unsustainably increased” in certain EU countries and singled out the Netherlands and Poland as the main culprits. Europe already has 350,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder in storage – “the EU’s method to remove excess milk supplies from the market and help keep a floor on milk prices.”
The answer to our question then is an emphatic “No”. Europe needs less milk, not more. So why would Beladon enter a market already saturated? Is it too cynical to see the floating farm as something of a gimmick, and the cows as unwilling players in an – admittedly spectacular – publicity stunt?
Beladon’s floating milk factory (let’s call a spade a spade here) is anchored near “the heavily industrialised mouth of the New Meuse River”, hardly a cow’s natural environment. But then you’re never going to get that in the heart of a big city.
While just about all cow- and milk-related activities take place on the floating facility, the cows can, if the whim takes them, “potter over a ramp to real-life pasture on the land.” It sounds delightful until you remember that heavily-industrialised river mouth. If I did drink milk, I doubt I’d want to be drinking that milk. And what exactly the logistics are of this pleasant little amble landward is unclear. Cows are herd animals. One can only imagine the chaos created by 30 + cows trying to negotiate a ramp to reach “real-life pasture”, or “pottering” back in the other direction. It sounds suspiciously like a bit of welfarist window-dressing, doesn’t it?
If you’re worried about the cows getting seasick, don’t be. The water-borne building is apparently as stable as a cruise liner. Besides, the Floating Farm website assures us, “millions of heads of commercial cattle spend weeks at sea each year while being shipped around the globe without issue.” Without issue? Really? Read what Animals Australia has to say about that here, and if you can stomach it, click through their gallery of photos.
Of course the cows in residence on the floating farm will not be subjected to those kind of conditions, we would hope. But if Beladon, which is first and foremost a property company, can confidently publish such a fallacious statement, it surely puts a huge question mark over their ideas on what makes for good animal welfare.
The Floating Farm may well be the Ritz Hotel for cows, but still…
This new cow palace in Rotterdam is a very far cry from the traditional picture of your typical dairy farm, that oft reproduced picture of cows munching contentedly in flower-strewn meadows before a rustic barn. But that traditional picture – the one the dairy industry has always projected and does all it can to keep us believing – is even further from the unsavoury reality of the dairy cow’s life than it is from the cow palace. Take a minute to check out the truth hidden behind the cosy illusion.
Just like all other mammals including us, a cow will only produce milk when she has given birth. If you can bear it, look what happens when her babe is born. Whatever else it is, dairy farming can never be humane.
So, do we need Rotterdam’s new floating farm?
Innovation, glass, steel, alfalfa, robots, “real-life pasture”, closed-loop systems or not, sorry Beladon, we do not need your floating farm. For so many reasons, it’s time for humans to ween themselves off dairy, and end the cruel practice of stealing babies from their mums.
How did we get here?
Right next to Beladon’s floating farm, bobs on the water a park made from recycled plastic garbage. How apt that these two facilities float there side by side, together creating a perfect symbol of the madness the human race has led itself into. Of how very far we have allowed a misguided sense of our own ‘superior’ faculties, a mechanistic world view, and blind pursuit of technological advance to distance us from our true place in the natural world – and other animals too.
Beladon’s next exciting venture? A floating farm for egg-laying chickens. The hen, one of the most abused animals on the planet.
Featured image Beladon
Cows on a floating farm may be new, but floating farms themselves are not. In Bangladesh, the practice dates back thousands of years
Anything else you might want to know about dairy and going dairy-free here
Dairy Farmers Risk Damage to Market with Oversupply – Press Reader