ALMERE, The Netherlands (RealClearInvestigations) – Farmers in the Netherlands reduced nitrogen pollution by nearly 70 percent through a voluntary system. But the government says that is not enough and is demanding that they cut pollution by another 50 percent 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 food 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 percent 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. Where carbon emissions from farming in Canada rose 87 percent to under 8 metric tons between 1990 and 2020, emissions from oil and gas production tripled, adding 69 metric tons of carbon dioxide, during the same period. With the pollution, however, came more food. Canada’s spring wheat yields increased over 40 percent during the 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.
What, exactly, is going on?
‘The fallacy of misplaced concreteness’
To better understand the situation, I visited the Netherlands in July, interviewing farmers, government officials, and agricultural experts. One of those experts was Dr. Rudy Rabbinge, Professor Emeritus in Sustainable Development and Food Security at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
75-year-old Rabbinge has worked all of his life as a farmer, scientist, and cofounder, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, of the Green Revolution, which brought modern farming technologies to poor and developing nations starting in the 1960s. Speaking rapidly in excellent English, Rabbinge told me how he had converted his own family farm into a nature preserve, which he has shown off to hundreds of visiting dignitaries over the decades. Rabbinge advocates for “nature sparing” farming techniques to increase yields, and thus reduce the amount of land needed for farming, thereby creating more land available for nature conservation through the use of fertilizer and other chemical inputs.
“My neighbor, a dairy farmer, does his job very well,” says Rabbinge. “And we are right next to each other. I invite people to come see it. Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, came to visit, and together we started the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa. But in the Netherlands we have ministers who say that they are the boss and know the best policy, but often they have no experience, and leave the work to the people in the ministry.” None had come to visit, he said, since the controversy began.
Rabbinge traces the current crisis back to 2006 when the Dutch government ended the system of “mineral bookkeeping” he helped to create. Under that system, farmers measured nitrogen inputs in the form of feed and fertilizer and measured nitrogen outputs in the form of milk and meat. From that they could calculate how much was escaping as nitrogen pollution. Farmers took various measures to reduce pollution and paid fines for exceeding their limits. Between 1995 and 2006, this system, which set targets but let farmers decide how to meet them, slashed pollution by 70 percent.
This success ended when farmers revolted against government efforts to align its system with more prescriptive European Union (EU) regulations. Spooked by radicalized farmers, the Ministry of Agriculture halted the system of mineral bookkeeping. As a result, the continuous reduction in nitrogen emissions also ended. “It would have been better had they stuck with the system,” said Rabbinge, who blamed extremes on both sides – green-minded government ministers and radical anti-government farmers.
There are two forms of nitrogen pollution harmful to people and the environment: nitrogen oxide, a compound of nitrogen and oxygen, and ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. Nitrogen oxide tends to come from industrial emissions, while ammonia mostly comes from farm animal manure and synthetic fertilizers. Data from the government show that ammonia flatlined after 2006.
Another pivot point happened a decade later. In 2015, the Dutch government introduced an emissions trading scheme, which would allow farmers to buy and sell from each other rights to pollute in the present in exchange for reductions in the future. In 2016, environmental groups sued the Dutch government. In 2018, the EU Court ruled against the Dutch government and said the nation’s pollution-permitting scheme was inadequate, and in 2019, a Dutch high court sided with the EU.
In response, the lower house in the Dutch parliament asked for an external committee of experts, including Rabbinge, to advise the government. Rabbinge and his colleagues proposed reviving the system of mineral bookkeeping. The government rejected it. “Our recommendations were never seriously considered,” he said.
The government sees it differently. “We made a promise 20 years ago to take care of our nature preserves,” a senior staff person who works for the governing coalition in the Dutch Parliament told me. “We never did because having a strong economy was more important.”
But Rabbinge stressed that if farming is done efficiently, it can significantly reduce negative side effects. “For example, you could produce the same 15 billion liters of milk that the Netherlands currently produces while reducing by 50 percent the amount of land, by reducing by 80 percent the amount of pesticide, and by 70 percent the amount of nitrogen pollution.”
Government officials latched on to hard targets and regulations. Rabbinge calls this the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” whereby bureaucrats, lawyers, and economists, in particular, tend to want to see hard-and-fast rules rather than the incremental and iterative approach of mineral bookkeeping and the similar “4R” program in Canada.
Consider the map published by the Dutch government in June. Government officials no doubt meant for it to be helpful. It showed which areas needed to reduce emissions by very specific amounts, which ranged between 12 percent and 95 percent depending on the location. But it alarmed farmers and, according to independent scientists, was based on false precision. Scientists simply don’t have a good enough understanding of the sources of nitrogen pollution to create such a detailed map.
One of the people who raised concerns about the accuracy of government maps of pollution is a microbiologist named Han Lindeboom, a member of the green-oriented D66 party that had pushed for strict pollution limits. Lindeboom says he debunked government claims about one of the sources of pollution. “I knew there was no ammonia coming from the North Sea and that they had simply added ammonia to their model. I went to the North Holland nature areas and found no critical excess of nitrogen pollution. Still, [government scientists] didn’t want to give in.”
Lindeboom says he wrote up a report and presented it to members of Parliament from the D66 party, but they ignored it.
In other words, the government is focused narrowly on shutting down farms near nature areas, even though the polluting nitrogen mineral deposits in the nature areas may have come from elsewhere. “You see that very often with policymakers and economists,” said Rabbinge. “They believe they know very well how society functions but don’t do experiments to test whether the outcomes of their models are in line with their simulations. As a result of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness you think you know things you don’t know. If you think pollution in a nature area is coming from a nearby stable, you might be wrong, because the pollution might be coming from higher levels in the air, and settling elsewhere.”
Rabbinge went on. “Economists and policymakers believe in the outcomes of models that have never been verified and are taken up by people sitting in an office in the Hague. They don’t know what’s happening in the stable or the field.”
‘People don’t really respect farmers anymore’
Jeroen van Maanen, 44, loves cows. The windowsill in his kitchen in the Dutch countryside is cluttered with trophies he has won for his prize cows. “I have a lot more than this,” he explained. “These are from only from the last years, 2017, ‘18, and ‘19.”
Van Maanen is a dairy and beef farmer who has become radicalized by his government’s proposed crackdown on nitrogen pollution. We walk through his barn. “We milk about 130 cows. Sometimes my kids help but I got divorced five years ago, and so they live in the village most of the time.”
Van Maanen says he was born to be a farmer. “I was a very shy boy till I was 12 or 14. And the only reason I started talking was so I could talk about cows.”
At the same time, said Van Maanen, “It’s not an easy life. There’s a lot of negative parts. In the past, you were just farming for high results.”
Back in the barn, Van Maanen said, “Now, there’s demands for the environment or for the government. Every year there’s more. And it’s increasing your costs. They say the consumer wants it but the consumer’s not paying for it. The prices on the shelf are the same amount. People say they want small family farms. They say, ‘The farms are getting too big.’ Well, we had a […] system that made them get bigger.”
He continued: “You know, a farmer isn’t a farmer for money. It’s the way of life. As long as there’s people on earth, they need food. We need farmers for that. It’s a very responsible job. And I think every farmer in the whole world is doing the best he can, but it’s not appreciated anymore. People don’t really understand or respect farmers anymore.”
I told Rabbinge about what Van Maanen said. “Farming is not just a job,” Rabbinge stressed. “It’s a way of life. And if you take that away, then you’re taking away a lot of motivation to live. That’s why you see more farmers killing themselves.” Indeed, researchers find higher suicide rates for farmers in Europe, Australia, the U.S., and India in what appears to be a global phenomenon.
The Davos factor
Farmer-Citizen Party leader Caroline van der Plas and other farmer advocates believe the push to crack down on farming does not just stem from national governments. She said many are influenced by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which hosts a famous annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, for heads of state, think tank researchers, and environmentalists.
Both the Canadian and Dutch prime ministers have enjoyed close ties to the World Economic Forum. In 2017, WEF chief Klaus Schwab said, “We penetrate the cabinets” of governments, particularly singling out Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “I was at a reception for Prime Minister Trudeau and I know that half of his cabinet, or even more than half of his cabinet, are actually [WEF] Young Global Leaders.” In 2021, WEF announced that the Netherlands would host the Global Coordinating Secretariat of WEF’s Food Innovation Hubs.
But it’s not so much that the WEF is the puppet master behind Dutch and Canadian government crackdowns and more that all three are influenced by environmental groups operating under the sway of pro-scarcity dogma, including agroecology, a kind of organic farming.
In the WEF’s founding document it cites as an inspiration the seminal 1972 report commissioned by the Club of Rome, “Limits to Growth,” which claimed the world would run out of silver, mercury, and tungsten by 2012, and see per capita incomes decline by 2020. Last year WEF published an article that claimed: “Through natural processes and avoiding chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers, agroecology reduces the environmental harm of food production while stabilizing yields.”
I asked Rabbinge if the experts were under the sway of 18th century British economist Robert Thomas Malthus, who wrongly predicted that humans were doomed to periodic overpopulation and starvation.
“Malthus was one of these economists who was extrapolating to his models,” he said. “He neglected the negative feedbacks [e.g., lower yields, crop failures] which always take place. Same thing with the Club of Rome which published the ‘Limits to Growth’ report in 1972. They eliminated negative feedbacks. But those negative feedbacks exist and result in innovation allowing higher outputs and fewer inputs.”
Rabbinge called organic farming “a religion.” Advocates oppose chemical fertilizers because, they say, they pose a danger to living systems. It’s a philosophy from Rudolf Steiner that is 100 years old. “As a result of the synthetic fertilizer ban in Sri Lanka there was yield reduction between 30 and 50 percent which created a shortage of food,” said Rabbinge. “People say we should do without chemical fertilizers but if we did that on the world scale then we could only support two or three [billion], not eight billion or ten billion which we expect in 2050. So they are creating a situation of chronic hunger.”
Misplaced concreteness and Malthusian pessimism are thus two sides of the same coin. “Decades ago we simulated yields of 11 to 12 tons of wheat per hectare,” said Rabbinge. “At the time they were less than five. People said achieving yields so high was ridiculous. Well, today they are between 10 and 11.”
Misplaced concreteness orients policymakers toward what they can do, reduce pollution, not toward what farmers can do, increase yields while reducing inputs.
Agroecology, for its part, provides green cover for what is ultimately a philosophy hostile to innovation and growth. “The organics advocates are against science-based agriculture, external inputs, and high productivity agriculture,” said Rabbinge. “They say with low productivity you can feed the world, which of course is impossible. They also say there are too many people.”
Malthusian ideology and misplaced concreteness are only made possible because elites, from heads of state to government ministers, spend many days every year jet-setting around the world to speak at conferences in places like Davos and Aspen, and spend little to no time visiting with farmers like Rabbinge and Van Maanen. If they did, they would not only gain greater empathy, they would also see that there are good solutions right in front of them.
“To give you a typical example,” said Rabbinge, “farmers who would like to reduce ammonia pollution know that the fluid component of the dung can be separated from the structural material like the straw. If you separate them within two hours you can avoid the creation of ammonia. But doing this is forbidden by law because the fertilizer has an animal origin, and raises the risk of disease. But farmers can prevent that risk. And so the policymakers, detached from reality, say they know better than the farmers what to do and treat them like children. The government has no empathy with the farmer community.”
Up from ideology
Within a few weeks of the farmer protests, public support had turned in their favor. Dutch citizens showed their solidarity with farmers by flying the national flag upside down and waving red kerchiefs like the kinds worn by Dutch farming women in the past.
Polling shows that, were the elections held today, the Farmer-Citizen Party would go from having one to 20 seats in Parliament while the ruling party, the liberal conservative party, or VVD, would go from having 34 seats to 21. “We would be the second biggest party in Holland,” said Van der Plas. “I never could have imagined last year when I was voted in parliament, that this would happen so quickly and so rapidly.”
I asked Van Maanen how he felt when he saw so much public support for the farmers. “It was great,” he said. “You could go on a hike, you could go on the highway, you could go on the beach, and there was support. I’m not nostalgic, but it felt like American or Canadian soldiers at the end of the war, you know? There were people all over the place waving and putting their thumbs up. No one actually knew why we were there. But they could all feel the feeling.”
I asked Van der Plas if she felt her party was ready to govern. “We are ready,” she said. “We were building our party from the moment we were voted into parliament. But when you are the biggest? Let’s see if it happens. If there were elections, and we were the biggest party, that would mean I would be a candidate for prime minister. That’s really crazy for me to say this. I think, ‘Am I ready for this? Am I ready to lead such a big party with everything that comes with it? All the people you have to hire?’ Yeah, it makes me a little bit nervous. I can say that.”
Van der Plas said she would act to reduce the EU’s scope of work. “I would like the EU to go back to how it was when it was formed. Cooperation between a few countries on trade and transportation and economics. It’s too big right now. We are a sovereign country. Let’s keep it to trade and economics. And, I would say, quit the World Economic Forum. We have the EU. We already have 27 countries we can cooperate with. Why do we need all these CEOs and global leaders and young professionals? Choices we make about climate or nitrogen or immigration should be discussed in Parliament, not by the World Economic Forum.”
In late July, representatives from the government and from farmer organizations asked a former government minister, Johan Remkes, to serve as a mediator for negotiations. Last Friday, they met for the first time.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized for the publication of the now-infamous map saying, “Communication needs improvement.” But he refused to budge on the government’s goal to reduce nitrogen pollution 50 percent by 2030.
In response, radical farmers pledged more protests. “You can prepare for the toughest demonstrations FDF [Farmers Defense Front] has ever conducted,” warned the organization’s leader. “We’re definitely going to escalate.” That same day, police arrested a man accused of dumping waste that contained asbestos, and setting it on fire.
Lost in the drama is the fact that the Netherlands remains a model for the world in not only producing abundant food but also for reducing pollution.
Reprinted with permission from RealClearInvestigations.