The world is a nutty place, and it’s only getting worse. If you’re a farmer in the Netherlands, that reality is hitting too close to home. The country’s government is talking about forcing half of its farmers out of business.
Welcome to the Netherlands
Let’s put this debacle into context. The Netherlands (formerly called Holland) is a country in northwestern Europe with less than 18 million people (for comparison the U.S. population is about 331.9 million). It’s roughly the size of Maryland with a lot of flat, low-lying land.
Despite its population and size, the Netherlands is the second largest country for agricultural exports in the world (the U.S. claims the top spot). In 2021 alone, it’s exports totaled a whopping 105 billion euros. Their largest crops are wheat, feed crops, and potatoes. And, of course, the Dutch are well known for their horticulture, including those infamous tulips.
But all of that be damned because the Netherlands is on a mission to halve its nitrogen emissions by 2030. Nitrogen balance is the ratio of nitrogen produced by agriculture and the nitrogen used by farms. The country has twice the nitrogen balance of other European countries, with most of that coming from agriculture. So the government is looking to reduce those numbers and come into compliance with the European Union’s conservation rules.
Standing in the way are Dutch farmers. The government estimates it will have to close 11,200 farms. And at least 17,600 farms will have to significantly reduce their number of livestock. It’s no surprise that the agricultural industry is hacked off by this. Over the summer, Dutch farmers protested these goals by blocking roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, and generally causing a ruckus.
So now the Netherlands will spend some $25 billion to buyout about 3,000 farmers and other large “nitrogen emitters.” And what if the farmers aren’t interested in the buyout? The Dutch Nitrogen Minister told the country’s parliament that farmers resisting will be forced to take the money and close down.
Most of this is aimed at animal agriculture. The country raises a lot of animals, and that results in a lot of manure. An overabundance of manure can potentially cause problems, like polluting water, producing greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing natural biodiversity. So the government’s focus is on reducing meat production.
Forcibly Shutting Down Farms–A Better Way?
Honestly, I’m not that familiar with agriculture in the Netherlands. So I don’t know how they operate, whether they’re open to technology and innovation, or how much emphasis they place on manure management. But my understanding from others is that the Dutch are techy savvy, innovative, and modern. Some of their farms have remained in the same family for centuries, and that only happens if you care about preserving its natural resources. So this move isn’t about sustainability, it’s about opposition to modern agriculture.
One pending question is how these moves will impact the market. Some people are worried about potential meat and dairy shortages around the globe. I’m a little skeptical though, because farms in other parts of the world could increase production to meet demand. The problem is that those farms might not be located in places where there’s a concern for the environment. If that happens did the Dutch really accomplish anything other than outsourcing the “problem?”
That’s the same reason why I’m so critical of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy. It rewards countries that reduce carbon emissions, no matter how they do it. Agriculture is easy because it doesn’t impact most citizens’ day-to-day activities (as opposed to making them give up their cars or not turning on the air conditioning). So with a sleight of hand, they demand more from places like South America, where farmers open new fields by destroying the rainforest. In the end, it doesn’t do anything to actually reduce carbon emissions.
I can’t imagine how forcibly shutting down farms is the solution. There are so many other options, if an overabundance of nitrogen is your concern. The government could invest those billions of euros into research and development aimed at reducing or reusing the nitrogen produced. The Dutch could implement regulations aimed at proper manure use and management to limit runoff and air pollution. They could develop supply chains where they could use the manure for fertilizer in other parts of the continent. If they really want to reduce the amount of livestock in the country, then use that money to assist farmers in transitioning to other types of production.
But they’ve chosen to destroy people’s livelihoods, heritages, and legacies instead. There has to be a better way.
Could It Happen Here?
Over here, we like to think that nothing like this could happen. We can’t imagine the U.S. government forcibly shutting down farms. For one thing, we have robust federal and state agencies focused on this issue. Farmers implement best management practices when possible. So I really hope it wouldn’t happen here. But with the world as goofy as it is, I’m not sure about that any more. Farmers in the Netherlands probably thought it would never happen to them. And then it did.
So what do U.S. farmers do to make sure we don’t face the same fate as Dutch farmers? First and foremost, do the right thing on our farms; use fertilizer responsibly and implement the best manure management systems available. We can also be open to new technologies, production practices, and science. Engage with consumers about why and how we handle this problem, so the national mood never turns against us. Participate in conversations about nitrogen management so we’re part of the solution, not the only problem. Vote for farmer-friendly candidates. And always keep improving and getting better.
My heart breaks to see what’s happening to Dutch farmers. But it should be a lesson and warning for agriculture everywhere.