After the US and France, the Netherlands is the world's largest food exporter, but the latest proposal to maintain agricultural production levels by building four six-storey "agroparks" has led to accusations that Dutch agriculture minister Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst has gone mad.

Behind the proposal is the Green Space and Agrocluster Innovation Network (GSAIN), who say that each high-rise farm will house enough chicken coops, pig pens, salmon tanks, mushroom beds and greenhouse space to feed an entire city. Such initiatives are also the solution, apparently, to the need for space in a country that, despite being only one third the size of North Carolina, produces farm output seven times greater per square mile than elsewhere in the world.

Animal behaviour specialist with GSAIN, Jan De Wilt, argued: "you can't feed a growing world population with an idyllic Dick-and-Jane scenario of the farmer in clogs with a bucket in hand, feeding his pigs and chickens and milking his cows." He also conceded however that the proposal was not officially confirmed, and was largely aimed at "stimulating debate" on the future of agriculture.

Stimulate debate he has, as the critics have been out in force. Major concerns surrounding the dangers of disease have been highlighted by the recent spread of the highly contagious swine fever and the human deaths caused by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). Nature and Environment Foundation spokesman, Gijis Kuneman, explained: "by concentrating so many animals in one small spot there will be a much greater risk of disease outbreaks, where instead of having to destroy 50,000 pigs we'll have to destroy 300,000."

Others have entered the debate on the animal's living conditions. De Wilt maintains that "if people can live in apartment buildings, so can pigs," and he stressed that animals in the complexes would see an improvement in their surroundings. Pigs will get a 5 feet square cubicle each and smaller cubicles would hold only 10 chickens. Balconies on each level will provide a breath of fresh air every now and again. Animal protection groups are sceptical, however. The pop-star ambassador of the Pigs in Danger Foundation upset Jewish organizations by declaring: "what Dachau was for the Jews, the meat industry is for pigs."

Campaigners for the protection of the environment are predominantly concerned with the dangers of severing the link between land and agricultural produce. Maaike Wermer, from the Animal Protection Society, explained: "When the farmer no longer goes into the fields where he knows his pigs, but to a factory where the pigs are packed together by the thousands, with all the dangers of disease, we are really headed in the wrong direction. Minister Brinkhorst has lost his marbles."