Veronika Settele: German Meat Work

In 2020, the historian Veronika Settele had presented an important study on one of the most pressing problems in the topic of nutrition with her dissertation on animal husbandry in agriculture. Two years later, she summarised her findings and broadened the focus under the title "Deutsche Fleischarbeit". In doing so, the author did herself no favours.

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Book cover

Veronika Settele can tell stories. About gift cows from Mennonite donor associations in the young Federal Republic, the “Chicken War” between Germany and the USA and the East German pig fattening at Hermsdorfer Kreuz. She uses highlights like these to illustrate the three chapters on cattle, chickens and pigs that make up the story of the “revolution in the barn” between 1945 and 1990. But Settele satisfies not only the narrative but also the methodological needs of the reader. She illuminates each individual chapter in a specific historical perspective. Cattle in the medium of body politics, chickens in that of economics and finally pigs in that of technological history. Settele justifies this plausibly, even if one could have applied each perspective to the other farm animal species with good reasons. Accordingly, her thesis “Revolution im Stall” reads with profit, despite some objections (more on this later).

From dissertation to paperback

The author’s narrative talent, as well as the relevance of the topic, was certainly the reason for publishing the core of the dissertation again in 2022 as a paperback under the title “Deutsche Fleischarbeit” (“German Meat Work”) by C.H. Beck. For the popular form, the historical focus was expanded. In her new book, Settele now promises to give a “history of factory farming from its beginnings to the present day”. In doing so, she frames her presentation on the one hand through the early history of her subject. On the other hand through its problematisation in the present. Especially the latter is understandable and expressly to be welcomed. After all, this raises the hope that a discussion that is being conducted in an extremely emotional way in public will become more objective and gain in quality.

Veronika Settele has written an inspired, readable dissertation on a clearly defined question, which is only blurred by a few misunderstandings. Her follow-up publication cannot match this, although there is much worth reading and discussing in detail.

However, the problems already start with the new subtitle. Settele had avoided the term “Massentierhaltung” (factory farming) in her dissertation. Now it becomes the central object of investigation. The author herself admits that it is “imprecise and analytically unhelpful”. But why she does not use the term “intensive livestock farming”, which together with its opposite “extensive livestock farming” has a clear conceptual contour and history, remains her secret. Now this would not be dramatic in itself if it did not result in a momentous blurring of the argumentation that characterises the book from the beginning. In fact, Settele lets the presentation begin in 1860, which could be debated if she did not give the completely wrong reasons for doing so.

Missing the point

In her account, the year 1859 and the so-called “Piggery War” obviously marks an initial point. It was then that the New York City Police succeeded for the first time in “removing pigs from public spaces”. Thus, the author devoted her first chapter to the phenomenon of the increasing disappearance of farm animal husbandry and slaughter from public consciousness. This is of some interest in terms of the history of civilisation. For the history of intensive animal husbandry, it is, like the entire urban space in general, at best a sideshow. She overlooks the real arena, the rural space of the 19th century, because her gaze is only directed at Germany, where there was no mass animal husbandry at that time. However, in the 19th century there were already a number of places in the world where livestock herds of enormous size were looked after by just a few people. The huge flocks of sheep in central Spain, for example, or the cattle herds of the Midwest of the USA.

Cowboys on the XIT Ranch in Texas
Cowboys of the XIT Ranch in Texas. Even when it was founded in 1885, 50,000 cattle were kept behind barbed wire.

The beginning of what Settele calls “Massentierhaltung” begins at the moment when these large livestock populations are no longer managed extensively, but intensively. In the USA, for example, the transition from “open range” to fencing with barbed wire from the 1870s marks this point. In Brittany, where aristocratic large-scale farmers had built up dairy herds of over a thousand cows, it is the planned intensification of pasture yields due to the strong herd growth around 1850. From here, the path leads to the large-scale feedlot and year-round indoor husbandry of today.

The importance of livestock breeding

Settele not only completely ignores this context, but also skips over entire chapters of classical agricultural history. The author uses the animal scientist Hermann Settegast as a second point of entry. Settele understands his plans of 1868 to breed specialised “utility animals” “in order to produce more milk and more meat” as a sketch of “hybrid breeding” 100 years later. Certainly, Settegast has an important linking function in the transition from pure breeding to crossbreeding. But the breeding history of farm animals has a history that goes back to the late 18th century. In the 19th century, almost all traditional country breeds, almost always multi-use animals, were re-bred into “utility animals”, i.e. specialised breeds.

Yorkshire pig
This enormous Yorkshire pig was the breeding success of Benjamin Rowley in 1809

However, crossbreeding was at the beginning of this process. Around 1770, the English farmer Robert Bakewell crossbred Chinese pigs with local pigs. The so-called “Leicester pig” was the first modern breeding pig. Only after these “optimisation crosses” were the results “fixed”, i.e. developed into breeds in pure breeding. In many cases this resulted in distinct specialisations. Merino wool sheep, beef (Durham-Shorthorn) and dairy cattle (Holstein-Friesian) or laying (Leghorn) and meat breeds (Crève-Cœurs) in poultry.

Gaps in the presentation

Salers cattle
Mother cow husbandry with Salers cattle on the Bec de l’Aigle in the Cantal region of France

With this specialisation as early as the 19th century, different forms of husbandry emerged at the same time, for example with fattening poultry and laying hens. These contrasts are particularly serious in cattle farming, where a distinction is made between mother cow husbandry (for meat use) and dairy cattle husbandry.

German agriculture, for a variety of reasons and unlike France, decided early on against the use of dedicated meat breeds in poultry and cattle farming and focused primarily on egg and dairy farming (in poultry this was corrected after 1945). In German milk-centred cattle production, meat is actually only a “by-product”. Settele seems to be unaware of this fact, presumably out of ignorance of older agricultural history and the trajectories of non-German agriculture. As a result, she throws things together that do not belong together. The reference to the success of the steakhouses after the war, for example, has nothing to do with the quality of the notorious domestic “young bull meat”. The fact was that meat from the USA and Argentina was served there for the first time, which came from meat breeds such as Angus cattle.

Milestones of intensification

In addition, Settele overlooks important historical milestones in the emergence of modern intensive agriculture. For example, the agricultural crisis of 1880, in which globalisation, in the form of the modern American “farmer-entrepreneur”, comes into view as a competitor to the old European farming world, the First World War and finally the Great Depression. Settele also hardly addresses the fact that German agricultural policy, at least since the beginning of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), is always also European agricultural policy.

Finally, the term “Massentierhaltung” is out of place in a historical account. Because it creates an artificial distance between the fatal development of livestock farming and that of the rest of agriculture. There is no equivalent to the term “Massentierhaltung” in the cultivation of crops, at best the euphemism “conventional agriculture”. Yet the two are indissolubly linked and share the same prehistory. In other words, when writing about the history of “Massentierhaltung”, it must be embedded in the history of the intensification of agriculture as a whole. Otherwise it cannot be understood.

The ethical subtext

If one asks about the reasons for this one-sided view, the reader gets the impression on repeated reading that Settele is not at all concerned with agriculture and its history, but essentially with the suffering of farm animals. In the acknowledgements, she recalls a colleague who warned her “at the right time against slanting towards an ‘anti-meat book'”. In fact, this ethically motivated subtext breaks out abruptly in some parts of the book. The fact that “East German fattening hybrids” were “similar” to the admittedly abhorrent “West German idea of Färsenvornutzung” is just as drastically exaggerated as the claim that traditional chicken keeping on the farm is “no different in its innermost functional motive from large-scale factory farming.”

In vitro hamburger
First in vitro hamburger from Maaastricht University 2013

The author clearly takes a side here. Killing animals is evil in principle. Which is why, in Settele’s opinion, there is no essential difference between chick shredding and keeping brother cocks. Occasionally, this attitude reveals illuminating things, for example, with regard to the self-illusions of the organic sector. But it prevents the outlook on positive aspects of animal use and meat consumption such as extensive grazing and the preservation of old breeds. Possible improvements within the existing system seem impossible for Settele. Which is why she sees artificial laboratory meat as the way out in the end. For the author, this would be a “conclusive continuation of history” – which Settele can only mean cynically. The neoliberal siren sounds of a complete dematerialisation of the human being are currently aiming at the abandonment of our connection to physical reality within a real environment in all areas of life, be it education, work, leisure, but also nutrition. Succumbing to them cannot be in the author’s mind.

Stefan Pegatzky

The author has published on the history of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as well as books on ” Geflügel/Poultry” (Wiesbaden 2016, NA: 2022) “Schwein/Pork” (Wiesbaden 2015: NA: 2022) and ” Wurst/Sausages” (Wiesbaden 2016). The volume “Agrikultur. Über Landwirtschaft, Herkunft und Geschmack“ (“Agriculture. On Farming, Origin and Taste”) is in preparation.

Veronika Settele:
Deutsche Fleischarbeit. Geschichte der Massentierhaltung von den Anfängen bis heute

(German Meat Work. The History of Factory Farming from the Beginnings to the Present Day)
Paperback 240 pages (in German), several illustrations
Munich: C.H. Beck, 2022

Image rights of the post:
Featured Image: ‘Chicken of Tomorrow’ programme modernfarmer.com.
Cover image: Publisher
XIT Ranch: Texas State Historical Association
Yorkshire Hog: public domain
Salers cattle: Zythème (CC BY-SA 4.0)
In vitro hamburger: World Economic Forum (CC BY 3.0)

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