The smallest seeds can grow into the biggest trees—and something similar appears to have happened a couple of weeks ago when Dutch voters moved a pro-farmer party into power in provincial elections.
The results imperil the national government’s controversial environmental plan for nature that includes a nitrous oxide policy directive focused on farms and agriculture. They also show how farmers can use the democratic process to transform the politics of a nation.
The Farmer Citizen Movement sprouted only four years ago, as farmers and food producers became frustrated with the political establishment’s ambivalence toward the agricultural sector. Known by its Dutch abbreviation of BBB, which stands for BoerBurgerBeweging, the new party turned anger into action.
The success of the BBB has many sources, but the most important may be the national government’s determination to slash nitrogen emissions in half by 2030. It admitted that by moving forward to achieve this ambitious goal, the reality will be that “not all farmers will be able to continue their business.”
This prompted huge protests, as farmers flew the Dutch flag upside down, blocked roads with tractors, and even brought their cows to the parliament building in The Hague.
I didn’t join the protests, but as a dairy farmer in the central area of the Netherlands, I understood the passion behind them. For years, farmers like me have worked hard both to produce the food that our country needs and work with nature as well as to reduce the nitrogen emissions.
My husband and I have adjusted the diets of our cows so that less nitrogen is emitted in the manure. We store manure longer, and when we spread it on the land, we mix it with water, in strategies that also reduce emissions. We’ve reduced our reliance on fertilizer, too, using it only when strictly necessary. We’ve also sown clovers in our fields because these plants (legumes) can bind nitrogen from the air.
In other words, we’ve turned to technology. I have described some smaller steps, but there are bigger techniques available as well. This is tradition in Dutch agriculture. As the Washington Post reported last fall, an acre-sized greenhouse in the Netherlands can produce the same amount as 10 acres of dirt farming. And where the rest of the world needs an average of 28 gallons of water to produce a pound of tomatoes, Dutch farmers use only half a gallon.
The lesson is that the best solutions to our most challenging problems often can spring from human ingenuity.
The national government, however, has chosen a different and extreme approach. Rather than seeing farmers as partners in innovation and conservation, they have not engaged our voices and perspective as collaborators—and it proposed a regulatory scheme that, if enacted, would make it impossible for many farmers to stay in business.
Voters responded by uniting and supporting a new party and requiring every province to form a coalition with other parties to form a majority.
The BBB won the most seats in all 12 provinces and now will play a major role this May in selecting the country’s 75 senators.
“The Netherlands has clearly shown we’re fed up with these policies,” said BBB founder Caroline van der Plas. “It’s not just about nitrogen, it’s about citizens who are not seen, not heard, not taken seriously.”
She’s right about that. Fewer than 1 percent of the population farms, but almost 30 percent of voters supported the BBB. Among people with no economic connection to farming or the food industry, nearly 20 percent backed the BBB.
This shows how much farmers can achieve when they harness their persuasive powers and communicate well. In our case, we mixed public demonstration with rational argument to reshape our nation’s political landscape.
It’s too soon to know how these election results will alter the government’s plan to drastically reduce nitrogen emissions through strict regulation—but they almost certainly now will have change in some fashion. Several national politicians already are saying that the timetables for reductions in nitrogen emissions are not set in concrete.
For a while, it seemed like some of the politicians didn’t want to work with us or listen to us, even as many of us know that we have a lot left to do in reducing emissions, improving biodiversity, and more.
Not only are we still telling our perspective, we’re ready to work with them as well as we create a better and brighter future for Dutch agriculture.