Misinformation About the Dutch Farm Crisis

Debunking four common misconceptions.

Dutch dairy farm
Cows are fed by a robot on a Dutch dairy farm (Lely)

When I wrote my explainer about the Dutch farm crisis a month ago, there had been little interest in the story abroad. Now when you type “Dutch farmers” in Google News, you’ll get hundreds of results.

I noticed a change when I suddenly got 10,000 readers in a day. (I usually have a few hundred.) Two things happened.

First a policeman shot at a tractor leaving a farmers’ protests. The driver turned out to be a sixteen year-old boy. Nobody was injured. National police are investigating exactly what happened, but it appears the officer thought the tractor was deliberately trying to crash into a colleague. (He didn’t realize the driver was a teenager.) In a country where cops seldom draw their weapons, much less shoot at people, the story was frontpage news, which led to Netherlands-based foreign correspondents filing their own stories.

Then Eva Vlaardingerbroek, a failed parliamentary candidate for the Netherlands’ far-right Forum for Democracy, was interviewed about the protests on Fox News. (Vlaardingerbroek was credited as a “legal philosopher” rather than a former politician for the only political party in the Netherlands that still defends Vladimir Putin.) She told one lie after another. Media Matters has the details.

Other right-wing commentators and media, some writing about the Netherlands for the first time, repeated Vlaardingerbroek’s fabrications. I’ll debunk the four most common misconceptions.

1. Reductions will lead to food shortages

The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural goods, after the United States. Climate-change skeptic Bjørn Lomborg, Market Realist, PJ Media and Webster University Vienna professor Ralph Schoellhammer, writing in Newsweek, wonder if it’s wise to cut production at a time when food shortages loom due to the war in Ukraine?

Actually, most of them don’t “wonder”; they’re sure it’s a mistake.

They overlook that:

  1. Not all Dutch agricultural exports are food. 9 percent are bulbs and flowers.
  2. 18 percent are fruits, vegetables and derived products.
  3. 6 percent are beverages, mostly beer. (The Netherlands’ Heineken is the second-largest beer company in the world.)
  4. 27 percent of “exports” are re-exports: products like avocados from Mexico and citrus fruits from North Africa that are shipped through the port of Rotterdam to Germany and Central Europe.

None of these would be affected by the government’s policy, which is to reduce ammonia emissions, which are caused by animal farming.

The Netherlands is the largest exporter of meat in Europe and the fifth-largest exporter of dairy in the world. That’s where the fear of food shortages comes from.

But there are nuances in animal farming as well, which none of the alarmists mention:

  1. The goal is to cut ammonia emissions in half by 2030. Provincial governments will have to fill in the details, including deciding which farms can stay and which need to go. By the time those decisions are made, the war in Ukraine could be over. (I hope so!)
  2. To produce so much dairy and meat, the Netherlands needs to import cereals and soybeans to feed 115 million chickens, cows and pigs. The Netherlands is the fourth-largest importer of cereals and soybeans in the world. Countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia clear CO₂-absorbing rainforests to grow cereals and soy, which they export to the Netherlands on CO₂-emitting ships, where the livestock emit ammonia and methane, to produce dairy and meat which are exported to Belgium, France, Germany and other countries on CO₂-emitting ships and in CO₂-emitting trucks.

You can argue the Netherlands “feeds the world“. You can also argue the Netherlands is a central actor in a global food system that is harmful to climate and nature, including animals. Both claims are true.

The better policy is to reduce dairy and meat consumption, and eat more plant-based (and in the future, cell-based) alternatives. Far less farmland would be needed to grow cereals and soy for animal feed. If we ate more cereals and soy ourselves, we would need just a quarter of the agricultural land, which would free up land to feed the 820 million people who still go hungry every day.

2. The Dutch government prioritizes an elite green agenda over the livelihoods of its people

It’s a claim made in one form or another by Lomborg, Schoellhammer, Britain’s The Telegraph and Jack Wolfsohn of National Review, who all seem to know better than the Dutch government what’s good for the Dutch people.

Set aside the damage ammonia emissions do to the environment; people are affected by it. Ammonia pollutes the air and groundwater. The health effects of groundwater pollution are hard to measure and at least partly mitigated by water purification. But we know air pollution kills. In the province of Brabant, on the border with Flanders, life expectancy is a full year lower than in the rest of the country due to air pollution. Industry and traffic share responsibility, but it’s not a coincidence that Brabant has the largest animal farms in the country with the highest ammonia emissions. I’m not sure what’s “elitist” about a green agenda that tries to keep people alive.

There is a cost to farmers. In the worst case, 10,000 of the Netherlands’ roughly 30,000 livestock farmers would need to quit in order to halve ammonia emissions.

But that assumes the remaining 20,000 would continue to farm as they do. The hope is that by downsizing farms, including switching from industrial to ecological farming, and investing in technological innovations that reduce and capture ammonia emissions, many more farmers will be able to continue.

It would help if their customers, including outside the Netherlands, were willing to pay a higher price for dairy and meat. Many livestock farmers barely break even. One in three don’t even earn a minimum wage.

Less intensive animal farming, with a higher quality of life for animals and a higher quality of products, would improve the livelihoods of farmers. Prices in the supermarket would rise, and the non-farm agro-food companies that process, market, transport and sell dairy and meat would probably see lower profits.

The national government is making €32 billion, including €25 billion in new spending, available to subsidize innovations and, where necessary, buy out farmers. That works out to €1 million per farm. It may not be enough to fully compensate every farmer, but it’s hardly the case either that the government doesn’t care what happens to them.

3. Farmers are being chased off their land to build houses

This is a conspiracy theory of the Dutch far right, which was repeated on Fox News.

There is a connection between farming and housing. Until ammonia pollution from farms is reduced, judges won’t unblock construction permits, because construction causes additional pollution and the Netherlands is already falling short of its commitment to protect EU-designated conservation areas from pollution. Some 18,000 permits are on hold. The national housing shortage has reached 279,000.

So the theory isn’t completely wrong: one of the reasons to cut ammonia emissions from farms is to free up “pollution space” for construction.

What is wrong is the claim that politicians are after farmers’ land. Half the land in the Netherlands is used for agriculture. Homes and businesses take up 13 percent. The government wants to build one million homes in time for the next election, in 2025, which would require 1 percent more land at most — and that assumes all new houses would be built outside existing cities and towns, when the intention is to build in cities and avoid sacrificing green space.

4. The media aren’t covering the story

“And when they do,” according to Schoellhammer, “they cast the farmers as extremists.” Independent war correspondent Michael Yon claims even Dutch media make farmers out to be “enemies”.

Until a few days ago, there was little coverage in the English-language press. Among the exceptions (besides me) were ABC, DW, France 24, PBS and Reuters; the sort of inoffensive mainstream media critics love to complain about, but apparently don’t read.

There have been articles criticizing farmers in left-leaning Dutch media, but mostly opinion pieces, not reporting. I haven’t heard or seen anyone describe farmers as “enemies”. On balance, the Dutch coverage is, if anything, sympathetic toward farmers and critical of the government for allowing this situation to develop.