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What next for the Dutch agriculture sector?

Priyanka Shankar
March 24, 2023

A week after the Dutch provincial elections delivered pro-farming results, government plans to slash nitrogen emissions could well be delayed.

Cows are seen grazing in a field in North Holland
After the Dutch provincial elections last week, the government's plans to transform the farming sector could be delayedImage: Douwe Mulder

Upside-down Dutch flags flanking the roadside have become a feature of driving through the Netherlands' lush, low-lying fields in recent months.

These flags epitomize Dutch farmers' resistance to the government's proposal of slashing nitrogen emissions by 50 % nationwide by 2030 and the attendant impact on their livelihoods.

Ministers have called the proposal an "unavoidable transition" that aims to improve air, land and water quality. They have also warned that this could mean some farmers being forced out of business.

The results of the country's provincial elections — held on March 15 — could, however, signify a change in fortune for Dutch farmers.

The Boer-Burger Beweging (BBB), or Farmer-Citizen Movement which gained momentum during the farmer's protests, landed a major victory and is set to become the largest party in the Senate (the Netherlands' upper house), winning 17 out of 75 seats.

The Dutch Green and Left parties are also projected to win 15 seats and the ruling Dutch government coalition consisting of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), Democrats 66 (D66), Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the Christian Union (CU), is set to lose 8 of its 32 seats.

While the results are not what Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was hoping for, BBB leader Caroline van der Plas told Dutch broadcaster Radio 1 that "voters have spoken out very clearly against this government's policies."

An upside-down Dutch flag is seen lining a farm in The Netherlands
Upside-down Dutch flags epitomize Dutch farmers' protest against the government's policiesImage: Lars Klemmer/dpa/picture alliance

According to Jeroen Candel, associate professor of food and agricultural policy at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), these provincial elections are likely to have quite an impact on farming policies in the Netherlands going forward.

"Firstly, the BBB party mainly represents farmers' short-term economic interests and is against the government's nitrogen emissions law," Candel told DW.

"Secondly, the Dutch Parliament consists of two chambers and while the House of Representatives, or lower chamber, is directly elected through national elections, the Senate — which traditionally assesses the quality of laws proposed by the lower chamber, but has become increasingly political —- is elected through the provinces," he said.

"Now that the government coalition lost its majority in the Senate, it may be increasingly difficult for them to get their nitrogen plans accepted by Parliament,” he added.

Max van der Sleen, economist with the Dutch network Mobilisation for Environment, added that the BBB's victory last week will also increase respect for the farming sector.

"Farmers are now going to be able to have more of a say in politics. With roughly 7% of the Dutch population living in rural areas, the BBB's victory means the farming sector will get disproportionately more importance," van der Sleen commented.

Nitrogen still a problem?

The Netherlands is the world's second-largest agricultural exporter. Its farming methods are intensive, however, with a relatively large number of livestock and fertilizers being used.

This has led to high levels of nitrous oxide in the country's soil and water — levels are currently higher than European Union regulations allow.

"If there is a choice in legislation between making money or taking care of nature, our government has for the last 12 years chosen to make money," Van der Sleen said.

"But when the EU announced in 2007 that they would stop with the milk quota because China became a bigger market player, the Netherlands started increasing its animal husbandry sector and the country's milk production has increased by 30% since that time. So instead of balancing the agricultural sector with environmental protection, the Netherlands continued increasing the output of its animal husbandry sector," he explained.

Noting that the agriculture sector was responsible for producing quantities of excess nitrogen — harmful to public health and the environment — the Netherlands' Council of State, a constitutional advisory body to the government, took action in 2019, ruling that nitrogen deposits in the country would have to be curtailed.

The Council also highlighted that the existing system of handing out environmental permits for economic activities was in violation of the EU habitats directive — which ensures the EU's biodiversity is conserved — while also adding to the nitrogen problem.

"The government then had to suddenly introduce drastic measures to reduce nitrogen emissions after this ruling. This came as a shock to many farmers because for years they had been told that they could expand their farms and now suddenly many of them would have to decrease the amount of livestock that they keep or even shut down their businesses," Candel said.

To match its 50% targets for slashing nitrogen, the government has said that around 11,200 farms will have to close and another 17,600 farmers will have to significantly reduce their livestock.

Cows are seen grazing in a field in North Holland
The Dutch government has said that the agriculture sector accounts for a large amount of nitrogen emissionsImage: Douwe Mulder

While these rules have disappointed and angered farmers, especially those in the livestock sector, each farmer's opinion varies.

Douwe Mulder runs a family farm in Friesland, North Holland, and owns a flock of about 200 dairy cattle.

"Farmers in both North and South Holland view the legislation differently, because it comes down to which farmer has the license to produce, since the law said to continue dairy farming, you need a permit. Those who don't get permits will be forced to shut businesses and are angry," he told DW.

After last week's vote, BBB's Van der Plas says Wednesday's vote was about more than the farm pollution issue.

"Nitrogen is a symbol for dissatisfaction in the country," she told NOS on Thursday, adding that many BBB voters "feel unheard, unseen" by politicians in The Hague.

"It hurt us that the government thinks our emissions are more than planes and cars. But on our farm, we keep an eye on the European goals and focus on maintaining a balance between farming and protecting the environment. Our goal is not to milk too many cows, or use too much manure which will lead to pollution," Mulder said.

What next?

With upside-down Dutch flags continuing to line fields a week after the provincial elections, Candel told DW that, in the immediate term, the government will have to try to find a majority in the Senate to obtain support for their nitrogen policies.

"They could either do so by collaborating with the Left, because the Labour Party and the Greens already collaborate with each other, and together with the pro-EU party VOLT could help the coalition to gain a majority. Or they could collaborate with the BBB. But that would put their nitrogen emission plans on the backburner, and as such pose a risk to the stability of the coalition itself," he said. 

In the long term, he said that the Dutch government needs to consider reforms in the livestock sector besides simply depending on technological innovations.

Dutch farmers angry over emissions targets

Mulder, who voted in the recent provincial elections, thinks that further dialogue between the political parties in the Senate, with each of them listening in an effort to understand each other, could help in solving conflicts of interest.

Such conversations have begun with the regional government in Van der Sleen's island, Goeree-Overflakkee in South Holland.

"We have set up a nature group with nature experts, and an agriculture group with farmers. These two groups are supposed to have a look at the future or the next 30 years. ‘What does our island look like? What is possible? What is not possible? And how will that affect the nitrogen ammonia and NO situation?' are some of the questions asked. So local solutions could also address the national debate," Van der Sleen said.

Lessons from other countries?

Meanwhile, Candel also highlighted that there are also lessons that can be learned from other countries in Europe.

"If you look at France, they have a whole program on what they call agro-ecology, through which they are trying to reduce the amount of fertilizers and pesticides within agriculture and come up with more ecologically friendly modes of production. In Austria and Denmark, the government has done a lot to promote organic farming. So there are other EU member states which have already taken action at an earlier phase," he said.

Van der Sleen shared a similar view, adding that even Switzerland where they have prioritized health and say that they will produce healthy food with good conditions for farmers, could be an inspiration.

"But this would mean food prices would be higher. In other words, they undertake less production, but higher prices, because they think this is valuable. So that is a direction the Netherlands could try," he said.

Edited by: Lucy James