Dutch Farmer Protests Show How Messy Climate Action Will Be

This summer, the Netherlands is experiencing chaos due to a standoff between Dutch farmers (and their government). Protesters blocked roads with tires and hay bales, withheld food deliveries to grocery stores and spread manure near the house of the agriculture minister. “That’s what you get when you make people so very angry,” Sieta van Keimpema, secretary of the Farmers Defense Force (FDF), said July 27 as the group launched a fresh round of demonstrations.

What’s driving the dispute? Manure. The Netherlands’ intensive livestock farming system produces an unusual excess of animal feces. Mixing urine with feces produces ammonia as well as nitrous dioxide. The latter is a pollutant, which can be leaked into the air and water to cause damage to local wildlife. The second is a greenhouse gas that traps heat. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nitrous dioxide accounts for about 6% global greenhouse gas emission.

The Netherlands announced a new world record to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half. The government said it was leading an “unavoidable transition” for agriculture. You can help farmers reduce nitrogen compounds release by changing the way you manage your cows. Experts say that farms may have to be closed if the goal is met. Farmers demand that the government reconsider the plan, before it is implemented later in the year.

Mohamed Farouk Batiche—

Mohamed Farouk Batiche—

TrienkeElshof, a 250- cow dairy farmer from Friesland’s northern province, feels unfairly targeted by farmers because of other highly polluting industries like aviation and construction that have not yet been subject to such strict environmental regulations. “It feels like they want to get rid of all the farmers in the Netherlands,” she says. “We know we have to do something about nitrogen, but not in this top-down way, and not at this speed.”

The farmers’ plight is stirring a thorny debate on climate action, with implications well beyond the Netherlands. These weeks have seen a flurry of solidarity marches from Germany to Canada. Some have been organized by people who view the measures as an attack on workers’ rights and small businesses. However, conspiracy theorists and far-right leaders have been involved. Twitter is filled with posts linking the Netherlands’ nitrogen policy to the Great Reset—a theory that claims international elites are trying to use the COVID-19 pandemic to establish an authoritarian global government. On July 7, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson featured a guest wrongly claiming the policy is designed to clear land for use by migrants. And at a July 23 rally former U.S. President Donald Trump praised the farmers for fighting their governments’ “climate tyranny.”

These may not be the end of global turmoil over agriculture. According to scientists, climate change must be addressed not only through gradual reform but also by a radical, global transformation of our food system. As one of the world’s most densely farmed nations, the Netherlands is one of the first countries to grapple with how that upheaval will impact farmers—and how messy the transition will be. It won’t be the last.

How the Netherlands’ got here

The Netherlands has a highly productive farming industry. After the Second World War ended, the Netherlands saw a rise in food production. It meant setting up greenhouses, vertical farms, and other efficient-improving techniques. Also, 238 cows were per square mile in 2021, as opposed to the 100 that are found in the U.K. or 81 in Germany. By value, it’s the world’s fourth largest dairy exporter and second largest overall food exporter, after the U.S. The Dutch earn more from agriculture than Brazil—a country whose territory is 205 times larger.

All this has been costly. The manure produced by Dutch cows is so large that it’s difficult for farmers to safely dispose of. In some places, this is leading to ammonia contamination. And agriculture accounts for 86% of the country’s nitrous oxide emissions, which drive up the country’s contribution to global warming. Meanwhile, intensive fertilizer use has led to toxic algae blooms in the country’s waterways that kill fish and make lakes dangerous to swim in.

Farmers and their cows protest outside the House of Representatives as MPs discuss the cabinet’s nitrogen plans.

Jeffrey Groeneweg—ANP/AFP/Getty Images

In 2018, after a lawsuit brought by an environmental NGO, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Netherlands’ policy to tackle its outsize nitrogen pollution problem was too weak and violated E.U. law. A coalition government that was established in June revealed plans to significantly accelerate reductions of pollution. Nationally, nitrogen pollution should be reduced by 50% by 2030. Pollution levels in areas near natural reserves must also be cut down by 70%.

Farming’s global environment problem

The Netherlands’ pursuit of farming efficiency is an extreme version of agricultural expansion that has taken place across the rest of the world over the last century. These environmental effects aren’t limited to nitrogen pollution. The amount of land that is used to grow crops and raise livestock has increased by more than two-thirds over the past century. This forced the destruction of forests which once protected biodiversity but also helped maintain a stable climate and carbon sequestration. Since 1900, atmospheric levels have been doubled by an increase of methane gas-belching cows. 70% of fresh water consumed each year comes from agriculture.

According to environmentalists, we must reduce the impact of farming on the environment by eating less meat, growing less crops and using less toxic methods to grow them. We also need to make food more resistant to heat, drought and floods that are likely to be exacerbated by climate change.

The Netherlands’ bold agricultural policy, which tackles multiple environmental problems at once and comes with a $25 billion fund to help provinces and farmers transition, is a promising step, according to Natasja Oerlemans, head of the food team at WWF Netherlands. “This is the first time the government has been willing to take ambitious, comprehensive measures,” she says. “And because [of the budget], it can allow farmers to take a new direction.”

What’s making farmers so angry?

For Dutch farmers however, this new direction isn’t clear. The government didn’t specify the distribution of the $25 billion, nor how it will be shared. Nor did they say how the provinces would decide who will keep their cows. Or if involuntary buyouts might be possible. Anger has been fuelled by the uncertainty.

Elshof says she doesn’t know what will happen to her farm if the target becomes law. Her business might not be viable if she could sell more cows than 30. Elsof believes that her and her husband (both in their 50s) might be able keep their cows if other farmers sell their farms in her area. If they do not sell their farm, Elsof and her husband may need to take early retirement. The family’s son is currently at an agricultural high-school and is considering changing his plans to one day become a farmer.

The government sent a mediator to meet with farmers’ organizations on July 26, in a bid to convince them that the target is workable. But unions said they didn’t consider the mediator—a member of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party—independent. They warned they won’t meet with him until the government promises “serious discussions” on the target and its timeline, suggesting the dispute is likely to continue.

The Netherlands’ farmers protests are probably the largest uprising over environmental regulation of agriculture that the world has seen in the climate action era. Similar tensions are also bubbling around the world. To challenge the green policies implemented in recent years by farmers in Spain and Ireland, New Zealand has held demonstrations in its capitals. Populists in the U.S. and Europe, including France’s Marine Le Pen, are seizing on the protests to cast climate action as a conflict between rural heartlands, working people, and urban elites.

Elshof, who marched in a June protest but hasn’t joined the more disruptive efforts, says governments and climate advocates hoping to enact environmental reforms need to communicate better and offer more support if they want farmers to make a rapid change. “The world now wants us to see ourselves as keepers of the environment and nature—and that’s so new,” she says. Overhauling a food system on which we all rely “is the responsibility of the whole community, not just farmers,” she adds. “We cannot do this alone.”

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