ALMERE, Netherlands — Farmers in the Netherlands reduced nitrogen pollution by nearly 70%. But the government says that is not enough and is demanding that they cut pollution by another 50% by 2030.
By the Dutch government’s own estimates, 11,200 farms out of the roughly 35,000 dedicated to dairy and livestock would have to close under its policies; 17,600 farmers would have to reduce livestock; and total livestock would need to be reduced by one-half to one-third. The Dutch government has demanded that animal farming stop entirely in many places. Of the over $25.7 billion the government has set aside to reduce pollution, just $1 billion is for technological innovation, with most of the rest for buying out farmers.
This effort has sparked a fierce backlash among Dutch farmers, who argue that the government seems more interested in reducing animal agriculture than in finding solutions that protect the food supply and their livelihoods.
“Why would you buy out farmers or reduce livestock when you have the possibility to invest in innovation?” asked Caroline van der Plas, the founder and sole Member of Parliament for the Farmer-Citizen Movement party, or BBB in Dutch. “The car industry innovated for the past 40 years. There aren’t fewer cars and the cars we have are cleaner. We even have electrical cars. That’s what I think is so crazy. Why don’t we treat the farmers just like the car industry? Give them time to develop solutions or innovate? We can produce food in a much more efficient and cleaner way if we do that. And it’s much cheaper also then by buying out farmers.”
Farmer protests in the Netherlands come at a time of heightened global food insecurity created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a major wheat exporter.
The Netherlands is the largest exporter of meat in Europe and the second largest exporter of agricultural products overall by economic value in the world, after the United States, a remarkable feat for a nation half the size of Indiana. Farm exports generate nearly $100 billion a year in revenue. Experts attribute the nation’s success to its farmers’ embrace of technological innovation.
The Netherlands is just one of the countries where governments are pushing for sharp limits on farming. Canada, for example, is seeking a 30% reduction in nitrogen pollution by 2030. While the Canadian government says it is not mandating fertilizer use reductions, only pollution reductions, experts agree that such a radical pollution decline in such a short period will only be possible through reducing fertilizer use, and thus food production. The cost to farmers would be between $10 billion and $48 billion.
“If you push farmers against the wall with no wiggle room, I don’t know where this will end up,” said Gunter Jochum, president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association. “Just look at what’s happening in Europe, in the Netherlands. They’ve had enough of it.”
Where the proposed Dutch restrictions are driven by land and air pollution concerns, the Canadian restrictions are driven by the desire for strong action on climate change. But greenhouse gas emissions from farming pale compared to those from energy. Emissions from oil and gas production in Canada rose five times more (76 million metric tonnes) than emissions from crop and animal production (14 million metric tonnes) between 1990 and 2020. And with the pollution came more food. Canada’s spring wheat yields increased over 40% during that period.
The most dramatic consequences of government intervention occurred in Sri Lanka, where a 2021 fertilizer ban led to a massive reduction in yields, sparking starvation and an economic crisis that brought down the government in July. Because agriculture is a source of greenhouse gases, the efforts by the governments and the backlash they are fomenting may be a harbinger of a global crisis.
Why are politicians being so dogmatic, in the view of their critics, at a time of rising food insecurity? After all, it’s obvious the strategy is not working – not even for them. In the Netherlands, after farmers blocked highways, dumped manure on roads, and started fires in protests across the country, they won the support of the broader public. If elections were held today, the governing parties would lose a significant number of members in parliament while Van der Plas’ Farmer-Citizen party might win enough to form a new government, with Van der Plas as prime minister. In Canada, the federal government has sparked a backlash from the regional governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan. And now, Dutch farmers are inspiring protests by other farmers across Europe, including in Germany, Poland, and Italy.