He lasted less than a year: The Dutch Minister of Agriculture has quit his post, after only nine months on the job and following a summer of protests by farmers who are worried and outraged by the government’s plans to endanger the viability of their farms in an effort to restrict nitrogen emissions.
“I have asked myself if I was the right person to oversee the tasks in front of me,” said Henk Staghouwer. “I came to the conclusion that I am not that person.”
There may not be a right person, but there may be an even deeper question: Which person? Many may not know that The Hague has two ministers in this space: the Minister of Agriculture and also a Minister of Nature and Nitrogen. This creates a conflict of responsibilities and in this case, a very difficult situation as the Minister of Nature and Nitrogen determined the very serious nitrogen emission measures and the Minister of Agriculture was required to give his perspective after the decision was made.
Agriculture in the Netherlands is beset by so much turmoil that solving our problems will require a remarkable act of statesmanship from government officials. Whatever happens next must begin with an appreciation of why Dutch farmers feel so threatened.
I’m a Dutch farmer who has devoted her career to the responsible production of livestock, cropping and biogas. We use the best science and newest technologies on our farm, doing everything we can to give the animals a better life—and that includes a commitment to reducing our own nitrogen emissions.
Yet we also sympathize with the Dutch farmers who engage in peaceful protests against the government’s plans. On our farm, we show our solidarity by flying the Dutch flag upside down—a traditional maritime signal of distress.
The Netherlands of course is a maritime nation, and the waterways of the world connect our farms to consumers everywhere. We may inhabit a small area of land but we’re a global powerhouse of agriculture. We are the planet’s second-leading exporter of farm products.
This makes us essential both to the Dutch economy and to global food security, especially at a time of soaring food prices.
The majority of Dutch farmers agree that we must reduce our nitrogen emissions, so that we can protect natural areas and meet conservation goals. The problem is that the government has chosen to treat us not as partners but as enemies—and it has introduced a plan that, in its own words, will mean “not all farmers will be able to continue their business.”
The government, under the leadership of the Nitrogen Minister, has set the arbitrary goal of cutting nitrogen emissions in half by 2030, and it has put the burden of this almost entirely on farmers, who must reduce their own nitrogen emissions by varying amounts, depending on where they live. Judith de Vor, my fellow member of the Global Farmer Network, lives in a region that must reduce nitrogen by 47 percent. Other areas must decrease nitrogen by 70 percent. A few are even supposed to slash it by 95 percent.
There are better alternatives. Instead of regulating farmers out of their livelihoods, the government might seek to reduce nitrogen emissions by embracing innovation. The widespread adoption of airwashers is one possible step. Other options include special feed for livestock or innovative milking systems for dairy cows.
This will require collaboration and compromise—and farmers will have to make compromises, too. Some will have to think seriously about the possibility of getting bought out by the government. My hope is that if this happens, they won’t have to abandon agriculture and that they’ll have the financial means to take it up again in new areas and new ways.
Today, the big issue is the disconnection between the government and farmers, in a dilemma that we see in many developing countries with populations of urbanites who never set foot on farms and have a poor understanding of what goes into food production.
At the moment, the protests of Dutch farmers have quieted down, though they could erupt again at any moment. The only way to prevent this disconnection and discord in the future is for our public officials to consult with the people most affected by their policies—and for all to come to the table with a joint vision and a genuine determination to find a common way.