A guest blog from Dr Justa Hopma on what’s behind farmer protests in the Netherlands and what lessons the UK can learn from them…

Last month large-scale farmer protests against new environmental regulations on nitrogen pollution rocked the Netherlands. The protests once again brought to the fore the seeming contradiction between policy that seeks to realise environmental gains and the needs of agriculture as a business sector. The Netherlands has one of the most intensive agricultural systems in Europe and the world. In spite of its small size, it is the world’s 2nd largest agricultural exporter (after the United States) and it is one of the world’s three leading exporters of fruit and vegetables. The livestock sector in particular, is characterised by an ongoing process of scale enlargement and regional concentration (Bos, Smit and Schröder, 2013).

For a number of years already, Dutch policy on air quality around protected natural areas had been found wanting, as recently confirmed by the country’s independent governmental advisor organisation, the Council of State. In essence, Dutch legislation allowed for the expansion of construction and farming activities near protected areas, as long as such activities were ‘compensated for’ in environmental terms. Environmental organisations successfully challenged the government’s position, arguing building in a lenient clause for compensation rendered the legislation ineffective and resulted in further negative impact on the designated natural areas. In the parliamentary debates that followed, some politicians promptly suggested that the ‘halving of the livestock sector’ would be the best ‘solution’ to the problem.

Unsurprisingly, large-scale protests organised by farmer groups followed. The farmers argued that they were tired of being held responsible for a wide range of environmental ills when other sectors, like aviation, seemed to escape public criticism and intensified policy scrutiny. As part of their response to the parliamentary debates and the protest actions last October, farmers sought to increase the interaction with the general public by offering them a ‘free farm breakfast’ in The Hague, the Dutch seat of government. At the same time, the Farmer-Citizen-Movement seized the moment and announced their plans to transform the movement into a political party, provided that electoral threshold would be met at the next elections.

The reception of the week of protest actions has been fascinating. Not only in that the events drew widespread media attention and extensive public debate in the country’s newspapers and talk shows for at least two weeks, but also in that several provincial councils swiftly dropped the more restrictive guidelines in response to the farmer protests. At government level, an impasse presented itself. The legislation on issuing permits for further construction and livestock sector expansion had been judged legally untenable, but there were no immediate alternatives available. Decades of governmental policy focused on avoiding any impediment to the ‘scope for growth’ within these sectors proved difficult to move away from overnight. At the same time, it is understandable that yet another twist in legislation following the ruling of the Council of State was not well-received within the affected sectors, because of the uncertainty and paralysis it brought with it. At the time of writing, it is still unclear how the Dutch government will make its guidelines on NOx emissions compliant with EU law.

The farmers’ responses have been this vehement, not only because the legislation affects their prospects for growth – which they perceive as necessary in order to remain competitive within international markets – but also because they do not ‘feel valued’ as a sector. The majority of the protesting farmers shared the sentiment that whenever environmental issues are on the agenda, it is the agricultural sector that is pointed at first.

From a normative perspective, the current situation can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Given that the courts ruled in favour of the environmental organisations’ call for stronger policies on NOx reductions, should the farming sector simply accept this decision and were the protests therefore an over-reaction? Some of the protest actions took a violent character and the costs to at least one council in the north of the country have been significant. Also, to keen observers of political undercurrents, it was clear that the country’s right-wing parties exploited a certain nativist character to some of the protests. Right-wing politician Geert Wilders was amongst the first to address the large crowd of farmers in order to tell them they were ‘the nation’s heroes’. This goes to show that agri-environmental debate and decision-making does not exist outside the wider realm of politics.

This is not to argue that the farmers did not have a point. Few people need convincing that farmers work incredibly long hours, deal with complex and constantly changing regulations and are often themselves in financially precarious situations. It is therefore no surprise that the proposed restrictions on expansion were protested vehemently. In a hyper-competitive system where strong downward pressure on prices is the norm for dairy farmers, rather than the exception, the Dutch government has offered few other coping mechanisms than to simply go along with price reductions, often by means of increasing the scale of production. It is for this reason that any restrictions on the means to expand are a bread-and-butter question for farmers.

How to transform this debate? Adopting a historical perspective aids in the analysis of the seeming deadlock. The negative environmental impacts of expanding the livestock sector in the Netherlands sector had been warned against since the late 1950s. Many of the concerns had been dismissed by arguing that technological innovation would soon present solutions to the problem of excess manure. Until today, solutions focusing on the processing of capturing emissions by keeping livestock inside or dealing with excess manure remain costly and the illegal dumping of farm manure is widely documented.

Consecutive governments have failed to substantively address this problem and have instead opted to cater to the needs of influential agricultural constituencies. As a result, the government has not been able to reduce NOx pollution, but has instead enabled the sector to find the loopholes in the law. In this way, the problem has been pushed aside rather than addressed and the current minister of agriculture does not seem to act any differently from her predecessors.

While the UK agricultural situation is different, there are many similarities in terms of policy outlook. Until now, the overwhelming focus has been on waterborne nitrogen pollution even though agriculture’s impact on air pollution – which occurs when nitrogen and hydrogen combine, creating the gaseous form of ammonia – is tremendous: UK agriculture sector accounts for 87% of ammonia emissions in 2017. The question is to what extent current policy and legislation creates future conditions in which emission reductions can be realised in a manner that is transparent, effective and yet ethical. That is, implemented in a way that is respectful to farmers, their livelihoods and the goods and services they provide to society.

In this sense, the Dutch case shows that easy technological solutions remain far from easily available. Clarity and honesty about government priorities and decision-making, ahead of time, would have gone a long way in avoiding the current conflict. And yet, what has been unequivocally positive throughout this period of nation-wide protests, has been the level of engagement on the issue by the public, politicians and civil society. For weeks on end, news bulletins, talk shows and even comedy programmes discussed what became known as the “nitrogen crisis”. People from different backgrounds have shared their views on a vital issue. How the ‘nitrogen crisis’ is managed will have a far-reaching impact on land use, livelihoods and the environment in the Netherlands. The quality of this discussion and the extent of engagement across the political spectrum has been timely and underlines the democratic nature of food system governance in the Netherlands.

Dr. Justa Hopma is active in academic research on food system change and currently works for the international agricultural support organisation AA International.