Going Dutch (Updated)
Big win by protest party underlines fault lines between nature and industrial food production
Thanks to Jeroen Candel, Associate Professor of Food & Agricultural Policy at Wageningen University for letting me lift his LinkedIn post for much of this issue.
(Correction: In the section “What do the election results mean?” I wrote that Labour and GreenLeft are in the ruling coalition, they are not. It’s that they have retained their seats and the national government will likely have to work with them to pass their laws. I’ve corrected this.)
On Wednesday, the Netherlands held its regional elections and the biggest winner, with an estimated 19% share of the votes, is the BBB - BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer-Citizen Movement) - which was set up in 2019 as a single issue party: to fight the government’s plans to slash nitrogen pollution on farms.
Reuters reported that BBB won 15 of a total of 75 seats in the Senate, or the Upper House. VVD, the conservative party of Prime Minister Minister Mark Rutte, apparently won 10. It used to have 12.
These elections are important because the Dutch Senate has the power to block legislation agreed in the Lower House.
Regional governments are also responsible for turning into action goals set by the national government, like the nitrogen caps that have roiled farmers and their supporters. According to The Guardian, the BBB finished first in five out of 12 provincial assemblies, “on some occasions with scores of more than 30%.”
The elections are also interesting from a continental perspective because of the heated debates happening across Europe on how to make farming socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.
Why are farmers upset?
Because the Dutch government’s plans to dramatically cut nitrogen pollution in some areas by 2030 involve reducing livestock numbers by up to 30%.
But let’s back up a bit. In May 2019, Netherlands’ highest administrative court ruled that nitrogen emissions were too high in vulnerable natural areas and that existing policies were failing to address the long-standing problem which experts say dates back decades.
To comply with the ruling, the Dutch government set the national speed limit at 100 km/h in 2020 and unveiled the livestock plans in December 2021.
“Relatively large numbers of livestock and heavy use of fertilizers have led to levels of nitrogen oxides in the soil and water that violate European Union regulations,” according to Reuters.
“The nitrogen problem has crippled construction in the Netherlands as environmental groups have won a string of court cases ordering the government to limit the emissions and preserve nature, before new building permits can be granted.”
Farmers say agriculture’s role in the crisis has been exaggerated and that the plans are unreasonable and would devastate their livelihoods. As a result, the Netherlands have been roiled by large-scale protests that have seen highways and airports blocked, manure dumped near a minister’s home, and clashes with the police.
Exporting the food, polluting at home
The Netherlands is a flat, low-lying and densely-populated nation of some 17 million people. It is synonymous with beautiful tulip fields, picturesque windmills, delicious cheese, the colour orange, and an abundance of cycling lanes.
But few people know that it is the world's second-largest agricultural exporter after the United States and is a global leader when it comes to food technology, innovation and science, much of it credited to the Wageningen University.
It is also home to more than 115 million animals raised for food, including 97.5 million chickens, 11 million pigs, 3.8 million cattle and nearly 900,000 sheep.
That is a LOT of animals in a country of less than 42,000 sq km, which is just a bit bigger than the state of Maryland. In comparison, France, which is 13 times larger, has an estimated 12 million pigs and nearly 17 million cattle.
What it also means is that farming in the Netherlands is very intensive and environmentally destructive.
Here’s what an article in UnHerd said.
“Manure and urine mix to produce ammonia, and together with run-off from nitrogen-rich fertiliser on fields ends up in lakes and streams, where it can promote excessive algae that smothers other life. Manure here is not a vital fertiliser but a problem waste product.”
Nitrogen-based fertilisers also produce nitrous oxide (N₂O), a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Also known as “laughing gas”, it is the main man-made substance that is damaging the planet’s protective ozone layer.
A 2020 global study found that its level in the atmosphere, where it remains for more than 100 years, has risen 20% since 1750, while emissions have increased by 30% over the past four decades due to human activities.
I wrote about a possible solution to the N₂O problem nearly two years ago if you want to read more.
Soil pollution in the EU
Let’s take a little detour to talk about the pollution of soils in Europe - the foundation of our food production. Industrial and commercial activities contribute to this too, but I want to focus on agriculture’s role.
According to the FAO’s Global Assessment of Soil Pollution report, published in 2021:
Various nitrogen fertilisers contribute to soil acidification, acid rainfall and eutrophication (harmful algae blooms, dead zones and fish kills).
Soil acidification can reduce nutrients in the soil that are important for plant growth, increase the risk of soil-borne plant diseases and limit the capacity of plants to counteract the attack from pathogens.
Soil pollution in Europe “is a major challenge and puts at risk human and environmental health. Despite being widely covered by various European Union directives and national legislation, polluted soils remain poorly inventoried and monitored and many areas still continue to pose a problem for the population.”
Analysis of agricultural soils sampled under the European Union LUCAS survey showed that 80% contain pesticide residues and only 17% are free of pesticides.
Although the gross nitrogen balance has decreased in recent decades in EU Member States, 45% of nitrogen inputs still come from synthetic fertilisers. Manure accounts for 38%.
Approximately 65%-75% of agricultural soils in the EU28 have nitrogen levels in runoff to surface water at levels where eutrophication is expected.
About 40% of agricultural soils would need a reduction of nitrogen inputs to avoid eutrophication of surrounding water bodies.
What do the election results mean?
Suffice to say, the results are a repudiation of the government’s environmental policies, as well as a culmination of the protests, which have been seized by conservative media outlets in the U.S. who decried the situation as government overreach and part of a woke, vegan agenda using non-existent climate and biodiversity crises to curtail farmers’ rights.
Here’s a piece from Sentient Media who debunked quite a lot of that coverage.
But the situation has also led to a massive rupture within the Dutch society. For a taste, just check some of the comments below the UnHerd piece.
It also raises real questions about how we can rein in practices that will ultimately doom us, without turning farmers into our enemies. Because we should be allies and working together, not against each other.
One thing I found interesting is that two left wing parties Labour and GreenLeft, seem to have held on their seats. So Rutte’s governing coalition will likely have to work with them to get some of their policies passed.
Here’s Jeroen’s expert analysis, which I found illuminating. I hope the machine translation is accurate!
“An alternative reading of the election results: of course, BBB ran a very strong campaign. But the coalition parties are mainly punished for a failing transition policy.
The world is facing an unprecedented ecological crisis. The Netherlands is one of the most polluting countries on earth, and very vulnerable to climate change. It has been clear for decades that a radical transformation of our economy, including the food system, is needed.
The Rutte cabinets (and previous governments) have hardly worked on this transition process for years, with the result that draconian measures suddenly had to be implemented to comply with international legislation.
Where many other European countries (e.g. DK, FR, AT), with a lower environmental pressure in agriculture anyway, have been focusing on organic or agro-ecological agriculture for years, in the Netherlands, despite regular praise for circular agriculture, there is still a lack of a coherent vision and management.
Over the past decade, billions in public support have been transferred to the status quo instead of transformative companies; long-term laws and regulations are lacking or not enforced; There is no coherent food policy, etc.
Moreover, the cautious push for a green transition has not been accompanied by a redistribution of wealth to marginalised regions and population groups. Increasing inequality (or the perception thereof) undermines support for a transition.
In addition, the political communication was always dramatic: "Brussels forces us to", "the judge forces us", "it is because of the NGOs". The urgency of the underlying ecology crisis has barely been conveyed (compare that to the COVID crisis!).
Even in parliament, there has never been a mature conversation about 'the limits to growth'. Politicians involved in the trenches fell into simplistic dichotomies (farmer vs nature) from Day 1 and also drew heavily on disinformation.
Voters are not stupid. An overwhelming majority of the electorate, "even" farmers, support effective environmental and climate policies. But in an orderly and just way. The coalition parties have never offered that perspective.
In this sense, it is no surprise that the CDA, the party that has been at the controls of agricultural policy for the longest time, has suffered the biggest blows in recent years. While from a Christian Democratic perspective, a convincing vision of stewardship, cooperation and solidarity should be possible.
Let it be a lesson for decades to come. Climate and nature are 'here to stay'. Let the coalition (and other parties) use these elections to work on real long-term policies, redistribution, and democratic renewal.
There is a chance that VVD and CDA will want to win back the BBB vote by copying the original. In the long run, that rarely works, and it does not solve the problems.”
Three Good Reads
Re-rooting the Dutch food system - Wageningen University & Research
Related to this week’s issue is this long-read from a team of farmers, scientists and environmentalists, including Jeroen, who came up with a vision of how the Netherlands can build a regenerative and nourishing food system by 2050.
Food is a Universal Right - Food for Thought
Natalie Love Cruz, who writes Food for Thought, is another writer who I got to know through last year’s Substack food fellowship. This week’s issue is a short and touching piece about her neighbourhood’s community fridge.
The 12 Best Cookbooks of Spring 2023 - Eater
Something fun for a change. I’m a big fan of Nigel Slater so it’s going to require a lot of self-control not to get his new book.
As always, please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on mastodon @ThinInk@journa.host, my LinkedIn page, twitter @thinink, or via e-mail email@example.com.
... we (farmers) should be allies and working together, not against each other. “ Democracies should be finding common ground via sensible policies that can be embraced by various interests and constituencies. Your writing, evidenced by this recent article, cuts through the extremist hyperbole and gets to the heart of the matter. Thanks for your tireless efforts.
Thin, thanks for passing my work along! 💗✨