I debunked four misconceptions about the Dutch farm crisis here a month ago: that reducing Dutch farming will lead to food shortages; that the Dutch government prioritizes an elite green agenda over the livelihoods of its people; that farmers are being chased off their land to build homes; and that the media weren’t covering the story.
That’s certainly changed, but with all the media attention there have also been more mistakes and a few outright fabrications.
Before I debunk those, let me recommend better sources. AFP and Time have excellent stories. I wrote an explainer about the farm crisis in June and have an article in World Politics Review about what it portends for food producers elsewhere.
Onto the blunders!
1. Farms must close to comply with climate goals
The Association of Mature American Citizens, Farmers Weekly, One America News, The Post Millennial and climate-change skeptic Bjørn Lomborg, writing in The Wall Street Journal, wrongly report that the Dutch government wants to close farms in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Rebel News correctly identifies the relevant emissions as nitrogen, but still maintains that the cuts “comply with globalist climate targets.” They don’t.
Nitrogen oxide, which cars and industries emit when they burn fossil fuels, is a greenhouse gas, which warms up the Earth. Ammonia, which emanates from manure, is not. 65 percent of Dutch nitrogen pollution consists of ammonia. 80 percent of ammonia emissions fall within 250 kilometers of their source, which is about the distance from Amsterdam to Cologne. The Netherlands has the highest emissions of ammonia per hectare in the EU after Malta.
All of which is to say: Dutch nitrogen pollution has little to do with climate change and the rest of the world. This is a local problem that affects people, plants and wildlife in the Netherlands.
Nitrogen helps some plants, like crops and grass, grow faster. That is why manure is a natural fertilizer and nitrogen is used in artificial fertilizer.
But where some plants grow unnaturally fast, others wither and die. The flowers and plants that perish deprive insects of their source of nutrition. The Netherlands has lost 70 percent of its insect population in the last thirty years. That deprives birds of their source of food. The Netherlands has not met EU standards for the protection of birds and their habitats since conservation rules were introduced (with Dutch support) in the 1990s.
Too much nitrogen in the soil kills the microbes who keep the soil fertile. Farmers resort to using artificial fertilizer, but that makes the soil completely dependent on synthetics.
Nitrogen seeps into the groundwater, which farmers use to irrigate their crops and Dutch people drink. Much like the bird and habitat regulations, the Netherlands has been in constant violation of the EU’s Nitrates Directive.
Too much nitrogen in the air can harm people. 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. Cars and industries share the blame, but it’s not a coincidence that Brabant has the largest animal farms in the country with the highest emissions of ammonia.
2. Farmers are being singled out
This is a complaint from Dutch farmers themselves: What about the airlines? What about industry? Breitbart, Fox News and Pig World uncritically ape it.
Airlines cause only a fraction of nitrogen emissions. Cars and industry cause about 35 percent, farms 65 percent.
When you factor in foreign nitrogen emissions, mostly from Belgium and Germany, the share of Dutch cars and industry falls to 20 percent and farms to 40 percent.
Nitrogen pollution of the soil is caused almost completely by farming.
It’s not that the other sectors won’t contribute. The government is due to present a plan for industry after the summer. PR-wise, it would have been better to publish the two simultaneously, but that would have meant keeping the plan for farmers under the wraps while civil servants drafted the plan for industry. Imagine the reaction if such a “secret plan for farmers” had been leaked in the meantime.
The EU as a whole will ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars in 2035. Most new cars sold in the Netherlands are already electric or hybrid, so traffic’s share of nitrogen emissions is shrinking.
3. There is no help for farmers
Dan McTeague of Canadians for Affordable Energy claims there is no transition plan for farmers, but there is: a €25 billion transition fund for the next eight years plus €7 billion in previously budgeted agriculture spending that will be reallocated to:
- Subsidize innovations that reduce emissions, including switching to organic farming.
- Help farmers downsize or relocate.
- Buy out those farmers who cannot continue.
There are just over 30,000 livestock farmers in the Netherlands. €32 billion (4 percent of GDP) works out to around €1 million per farm.
The government expects 11,000 farmers will need to quit and 17,000 will need to reduce ammonia emissions by 12 to 58 percent.
There are parts of the country where the reduction goal is 70 or even 95 percent, to create buffer zones around conservation areas, but such reductions are virtually unachievable for farmers. That’s where the 11,000 would be expropriated.
4. Why would the Netherlands put global food supplies at risk?
Why indeed. If the best answer you think of is that all the scientists, civil servants and politicians who have been working on this issue for the last three years, and in some cases longer, are idiots — which is essentially what One America News, the New York Post, Brendan O’Neill of Spiked and Samuel Dutschmann of The Spectator are saying — you haven’t dug deep enough.
The Netherlands produces 6 percent of the world’s food. It is not, as One America News claims, the world’s second-largest producer of food. It is the second-largest exporter of agricultural goods.
That includes nonfood: 9 percent of Dutch agricultural exports are flowers and bulbs.
It also includes 26 percent 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.
The remainder is food. The Netherlands exports 75 percent of the food it makes, including 65 percent of its milk and 60 percent of its meat. The Netherlands is the fifth-largest dairy exporter in the world and the largest meat exporter in Europe. Dairy and meat exports were worth €18 billion last year, 2 percent of GDP.
Half the exports go to just four countries: Belgium, France, Germany and the UK. Countries where — as in the Netherlands itself — dairy and meat consumption is way above what nutritionists would consider healthy. Germans aren’t going to starve when the Dutch sell fewer pork sausages. German meat consumption is falling anyway, by 12 percent in the last decade.
People are going hungry when developing countries in Asia and Latin America sell their cereals and soybeans to Europe, where they fetch a better price to feed chickens, cows and pigs than they would at home feeding people. Cereals and soy are exempt from the EU’s otherwise steep food import tariffs — for this very reason. The Netherlands is the fourth-largest importer of cereals in the world and the second-largest importer of soy, after China. 93 percent of imported soybeans are converted into animal feed.
Dutch produce really is feeding the world. Precision agriculture and the world’s most efficient greenhouses produce and export billions worth of cucumbers, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes every year.
But the imports required to make the Netherlands a dairy and meat exporter exacerbate, rather than alleviate, global food insecurity.
5. Dutch farm cuts are part of an international conspiracy
It’s hardly a conspiracy when it’s all out in the open.
There is no direct link with the Dutch nitrogen policy, but One America News, Rebel News, The American Conservative, The Federalist and The Hill’s Rising find it suspicious that the government’s long-term plan for agriculture, which in addition to reducing emissions includes such things as shifting to circular farming and more plant-based diets, matches the World Economic Forum’s, which in turn references the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.
These are not coincidences, nor are they a conspiracy.
The World Economic Forum’s work on agriculture and food is influenced by Dutch research, since the Dutch are at the forefront of agricultural innovation. WEF isn’t telling the Dutch what to do. If anything, the Dutch are telling WEF — a nongovernmental organization with no enforcement power — what they should do for farms and food systems worldwide.
The Sustainable Development Goals are broad ambitions, like: clean water, zero hunger, saving wildlife. Countries adopted them in 2015. They are not enforceable, nor do they prescribe how the goals must be met.
Some governments, like the Dutch, are claiming to take the goals into account when making policy, but there is not a one-on-one connection with the reductions in farming. Other countries are ignoring the goals altogether. The UN has a ranking of how countries are doing.
6. The media are calling farmers “extremists”
This is a canard I’ve heard and read in various media, including AMAC, The Hill’s Rising and The Spectator. None of them give examples, because there aren’t any. Google the Dutch version of “farmers are extremists” (boeren zijn extremisten) and you get exactly three results, all from random, anonymous people on message boards.
Journalists have cited officials, who have condemned particular actions, such as the dumping and burning of manure on motorways, as extreme.
There are many journalists on the (far) right who have described the Dutch government as extremist for its policy.