European farmers can still consider the coming to power of the new government in the Netherlands a momentous day.
The government was sworn in on January 10, an unprecedented 299 days since the country’s last election.
Agriculture was probably one of the thorniest topics in the coalition negotiations, as more and more Dutch politicians talked about massive reductions in animal numbers, land buyouts and even compulsory acquisitions.
Dutch agriculture has been under pressure from the government and the EU for several years. It was the EU that imposed an 11% reduction in dairy cows in 2017 and 2018 due to rampant phosphate pollution.
In 2019, the highest Dutch court ruled that permits for construction projects and agricultural activities that emit large amounts of nitrogen are against EU law. To solve this problem, an estimated 70% reduction in nitrogen emissions is needed by 2035.
Some experts say this requires halving the number of Dutch cattle.
This small country of 17.5 million inhabitants has nearly four million cattle, 12 million pigs and 100 million chickens. Statistically, the Netherlands is the world’s second largest agricultural exporter, after the United States.
Agriculture generates 16% of greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands. This is small compared to Ireland’s 35%, but only because of a high level of industrialization, and because the Netherlands is also crammed into a huge flower production industry, one of largest airports in Europe at Schiphol, a dense road network and many huge industries. .
It looks like agriculture could be the loser, now under intense pressure from all sides.
It focuses on excess nitrogen in the atmosphere. Nitrogen oxides from combustion engines, farms, livestock and fertilizers are blamed for damaging forests, soils and waterways, as well as greenhouse gases.
The construction industry generates a lot of nitrogen oxide and other pollutants, but huge construction projects are needed to deal with the housing shortage.
By pushing the agricultural sector to reduce pollution, the government could resume construction projects blocked by nitrogen emission laws.
Earlier this year, the government launched a voluntary pig farm buyout scheme. But only 278 were eligible, the government had planned some 430.
The new government wants to devote 25 billion euros by 2035 to rural investment, subsidizing ecological agriculture and supporting the transition to circular agriculture.
Forced livestock cuts, favored by the D66 and leftist parties to reduce pollution, were not included in the deal. But voluntary takeovers would be financed by the 25 billion euro fund.
Farmers located near protected natural areas will face the greatest pressure to retire, diversify, retrain, innovate or relocate.
The main Dutch farmers’ organisation, LTO, welcomed the spending plans, but said they should be spent on encouraging farmers to change, not on compensating farmers who retire.
The new coalition government includes the same four parties as the government that resigned a year ago after wrongly labeling thousands of parents who applied for childcare benefits as fraudsters.
The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte had appeared ready to buy out the farmers. The Christian Democrat CDA no longer rejects the idea of forced takeovers by farmers. And progressive D66 Democrats are open to farmer buyouts to tackle nitrogen pollution problems. He said the acquired land will be returned to a natural status or designated for nature-friendly agriculture.
Farmers fought back, with two years of sometimes militant protests, often blocking highways and causing the worst Dutch traffic jams.
They stormed the provincial assembly in Groningen, driving a tractor through the gate of the local government building. This could now backfire, as Groningen provincial council executive Henk Staghouwer is the new agriculture minister.
Owner of a chain of bakeries, he succeeds the farmer’s daughter Carola Schouten.
The new government’s most vocal opposition may include newcomers from the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) led by former agricultural journalist Caroline van der Plas. She is the only existing BBB elected official, but the party is expected to win up to 10 seats in the next election.
Her father, Wil, was a sports journalist and her mother, Nuala, emigrated from Ireland in 1961 and became a CDA adviser.
Ms Schouten said: “If we reduce agriculture here in the Netherlands, it will simply move to other countries that are less sustainable than us. Every cow we lose here will be replaced by two or three elsewhere in the world.
“So if we need to reduce carbon dioxide, nitrogen, ammonia, let the farmers here come up with innovations to make production cleaner.”
Dutch farmers hope it will work. Belgian and German farmers will also be watching closely. They have similar agricultural pollution problems and fear that their governments will follow any Dutch example of being tough on farmers.
In 2021, the government closed a Belgian poultry farm due to high levels of nitrogen emissions. Germany has nitrogen emissions in the Ruhr and Rhine regions as high, if not higher, than in Belgium and the Netherlands.
German farmers fear environmentalists could successfully take a nitrogen emissions case to the European Court of Justice, which could cripple high-emission projects in construction and agriculture, as was the case in the Netherlands.