- Despite months of protests by farmers and an electoral rebuke, the Dutch government has pressed ahead with an attempt to make its farming system more ecologically sustainable.
- But there are deep divisions in the Netherlands over how extensive any reforms should be, and clashes over the role that new technologies should play in them.
- This summer, talks over a potential consensus position between the Dutch government and the national farmers’ union collapsed in failure.
- The clash between the continent’s green movement and its agricultural industry is building steam, with the EU’s flagship conservation law barely squeaking through parliament in June.
LEEUWARDEN, Netherlands — To a din of mooing and the occasional sound of urine hitting the floor, Kees de Koning strolled past a row of pens holding a dozen or so cows, their heads poking through the slats as they chewed on the feed piled below. Until its manufacturer took it back a few weeks earlier, this is where the “cow toilet” was.
“It’s a bit like a feed dispenser, on the back there’s a unit that closes down,” he explained in the matter-of-fact tone of a polished guide. “And that unit has a pissoir — how do you call it? A urinal. It closes from behind, and we start tickling the hind of the cow, just below the vulva. It’s more or less a hormonal process, and the cow starts peeing.”
With an encyclopedic knowledge of dairy farming in the Netherlands, de Koning is the managing director at Wageningen University & Research’s Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden. Here, in a sprawling complex of industrial barns housing around 500 cows, the future of Dutch dairy farming is being honed. The Dairy Campus is an academic research facility, but it’s also an important locus for the dairy industry. De Koning and his team design their experiments with the input of farmers’ organizations and share their findings with a wide group, including dairy companies and policymakers in The Hague.
The cow toilet, along with other new technologies being tested here, is part of an effort by the Dutch dairy industry to escape its nitrogen problem as painlessly as possible. By capturing urine before it mixes with the ubiquitous feces spread across the barn’s floor, the toilet’s inventors hope to reduce ammonia emissions. It’s not the only potential solution under development. De Koning points to the barn’s ceiling, where industrial sprinklers will be part of an upcoming test of another system meant to wash urine into containers below the floor.
With the industry facing pressure from the EU, technologies like these could potentially allow farmers to dodge the tougher approach that some policymakers have in mind: big cuts to the number of livestock in the Netherlands. De Koning, who himself was raised on a small dairy farm, is optimistic.
“I’ve seen the development of the industry into quite a success story. And I think it still is a success story,” he said. “I think you can use the same way of thinking that we did in past decades to overcome those challenges.”
Not everyone is so sure. Most ecologists are skeptical that there’s a technological quick fix to solve the stikstofkrisis, or nitrogen crisis. Ammonia emissions from livestock farming in the Netherlands, they say, have been at high levels for too long, and now the only way to save habitats on the brink is to reduce the nation’s herds of cows, pigs and chickens. Some of de Koning’s counterparts at Wageningen, one of the world’s premier agriculture research universities, have suggested that a deeper transition away from livestock farming, along with meat and dairy consumption as a whole, is unavoidable in the long run.
“I have some colleagues in the environmental sciences group who think the only solution for the future to save nature is to get rid of all cows … That’s quite an interesting way of thinking,” he said. “I don’t like it.”
Whether with cow toilet or cutbacks, the Netherlands has to dramatically slash its nitrogen emissions to stay in the EU’s good graces. But how to get there has been the subject of a heated national debate. And the questions being raised in that debate are familiar ones for the environmental movement. Who pays for a transition to a more sustainable system? Should the private sector be more harshly regulated? What happens to rank-and-file workers in polluting industries like intensive livestock farming?
How these questions shake out in the Netherlands, and where its powerful, 230-billion-euro ($248-billion) agricultural industry goes from here will have profound consequences for Dutch nature and society. If the past four years here are any guide for other countries facing their own ecological and climate reckonings, they would do well to prepare for a rough ride too.
A fork in the pasture
Livestock-induced nitrogen emissions spurred the clash over the future of farming in the Netherlands, but they’re not the only environmental problem facing Dutch agriculture. Pesticide and fertilizer runoff is damaging waterways, and despite falling in recent years, the sector is still responsible for 16% of Dutch carbon emissions. In a trend that’s among the worst in Europe, the number of farmland birds in the Netherlands has declined by 50% since 1960.
“The problem now is that we have this mono-focus on nitrogen, while the problem is much broader,” said Anne van Doorn, a specialist in agriculture and biodiversity at Wageningen. “I think we’ve strived for way too long for a lot of cheap food with very high production levels and a lot of animals.”
When the newly minted Farmers-Citizens Party, the BBB, rose to power in the Netherlands’ rural provinces earlier this year, it vowed to oppose key provisions of the government’s nitrogen plans, including mandatory buyouts of “peak emitters” and an overall halving of ammonia emissions by 2030. But the real problem for the party and its allies in the Dutch meat and dairy industry isn’t in The Hague; it’s in Brussels. EU regulations require protection for high-value conservation areas under the Europe-wide Natura 2000 network. If the Netherlands doesn’t come up with a viable plan to keep them from being further damaged by nitrogen emissions, it will face hefty fines.
For the most part, there’s consensus in the Netherlands that change is needed to protect the environment, especially when it comes to livestock farming. Even the powerful Dutch farmers’ union, the Netherlands Agricultural and Horticultural Association (LTO), says it “accepts its responsibility” to protect biodiversity and the climate.
But what kind of change, and how deep it should run, is far from settled.“The farming industry has been really successful in creating doubts and creating their own narrative about what actually is going on,” said Raoul Beunen of the Open University. “And they’re much more successful than nature conservation organizations and the government in influencing the narrative.”
To find a way forward after years of heated conflict, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s cabinet, led by Agriculture Minister Piet Adama, initiated negotiations with the LTO and other industry representatives late last year. Nitrogen was just one of the issues on the table. Adama and other members of the cabinet hoped that despite the tensions, they could reach an “agricultural agreement” that would serve as a road map to a more sustainable future for the country’s farmers.
Rutte’s governing coalition set aside 24.3 billion euros ($26.2 billion) for the transition — a huge sum in a country with only 50,000 or so agricultural businesses. Around 7.5 billion euros ($8.1 billion) of that has already been earmarked for buying out up to 3,000 “peak emitter” farms, many located near nature reserves, at up to 120% of their value. What to spend the rest on is still up in the air. And environmental advocates are nervous.
“This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Roos Benard, a biodiversity campaigner at Greenpeace Netherlands. “There is so much money to really make a change, but will it all be spent on false solutions?”
One of the arguments is over how much of it will be used to fund technological innovation on existing farms. Those who support investments into research and development say technology has a track record of success, having already played a big role in reducing nitrogen emissions by more than half since the 1980s. Critics say that’s precisely the point: whatever gains could be made with improved barn filtration and floor slats are already on the books, and dreams of an eco-friendly techno miracle are just a way to keep the status quo intact.
“If you import [more] nitrogen than you export, you’re going to get accumulation,” said Wim van der Putten, a soil expert at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. “The key problem is that agriculture is so intensive here … it can only be stopped by reducing the amount of animals.”
If the track record of recent farm innovations meant to reduce nitrogen emissions is any guide, there’s reason to be skeptical. A new study found that barn floors and stable belts designed to separate cow manure from urine are only about half as effective as their manufacturers claim.
“There is a kind of technological optimism that leads us into delay, and actually consolidation of existing power,” said Adam Calo, an assistant professor of environmental politics and governance at Radboud University. “And the [technologies] that do emerge and get funded are the ones that integrate nicely with the current model. A technology that would support agriculture with much less cows isn’t as appealing, right?”
Breaking the piggy bank
How much livestock the Netherlands should keep in five, 10 or 20 years is the burning question. Some agricultural researchers say that for farming to be truly “circular,” a state where it produces as little waste and pollution as possible, there will have to be far fewer livestock and a large reduction in meat consumption, not just here in the Netherlands, but in the wealthy world at large.
In models designed to promote recycling, some cows would remain; by feeding them food waste that would otherwise be trashed, a limited number of animals would actually boost efficiency. But their overall number would drop sharply.
“Right now, the only way to have a business model for a farm is to increase scale by lowering the costs per animal and product,” van Doorn said. “So, it’s a race to the bottom. The key to change this is to create agricultural systems that have less animals, more added value to the products, and for farmers to get paid to take care of the environment.”
But a transformation that large won’t come easy. Policymakers would have to win the support of farmers themselves — not an easy task in the climate of mistrust and, at times, outright hostility that’s come to define their relationship with The Hague.
Dutch farmers used to be much more integrated with the state, sitting on “production boards” where they helped shape agricultural policy. But when slashing the size of government became the preference du jour in The Hague, they were scrapped, along with other direct ties to the countryside.
“I was in the local board of [agricultural] extension services in the late ’70s and ’80s,” said Jan Slomp, a former dairy farmer. “I witnessed from the ’70s going forward that there was basically a 90% cutback in those services funded by government.”
Now, convincing farmers to exit the system they’ve grown used to, and which was imposed on them over decades, will take time and hard work. Ecologists and environmental advocates say they’re hopeful that with the right support and a communication reset, enough farmers might move toward nature-positive models to achieve a critical mass.
“There are lots of farmers who want to adapt their farm,” van Doorn said. “I’ve never spoken to a farmer who said ‘No, I don’t want to change.’ But they need the right conditions.”
One of those conditions, a crucial one, is ensuring the transition doesn’t ruin farmers financially. Shifting to nature-positive farming isn’t cheap, and it involves risk. For a while, many farms would likely be less profitable. Banks are well aware of this risk; a 2020 analysis found that financial institutions in the Netherlands are reluctant to hand out loans for investments in “innovative,” environmentally friendly farming practices.
If the deal is sweet enough, though, there’s reason to think many farmers would take the leap. In a 2022 study, when offered a combination of heavy loan packages with low interest rates, price guarantees, and subsidies, almost a quarter of surveyed Dutch dairy farmers said they’d adopt green practices. And success loves company; watching their neighbors survive the transition might inspire other farmers to change as well.
But a strategy like that would come with a hefty price tag, especially at the scale needed to transform the entire sector. Environmental advocates say it shouldn’t all fall on the public to fund it: banks, agrifood companies and supermarket chains that have grown fat with profits over the past 75 years should have to pony up as well.
“I think if the government makes clear that behind the nitrogen crisis, there are big corporations that have contributed to it and are still profiting from it, and also show their willingness to hold them accountable for their role and ask them to pay their fair share to finance a just transition, that could be a way out,” said Wouter Kolk, campaign leader at environmental group Milieudefensie.
Rabobank, which finances five out of six farmers in the Netherlands, says it’s committed to supporting a green transition for the agrifood sector. But the bank has said it will not cancel or modify existing loans to farmers already entrenched in intensive production systems.
In an email to Mongabay, Rabobank said it’s in favor of the government’s nitrogen plans, offering interest rate cuts to farmers who score highly on ESG markers and support for those who “move to a more sustainable business model.” But writing down loans would violate financial regulations and endanger the bank’s health without addressing a core problem: the cost of going green means higher prices for consumers, and most aren’t willing to pay them.
“The revenue model of the Dutch farmer is not sufficient to invest in the necessary steps, as the parties further down the value chain, such as processors, retailers, and consumers, are not paying a higher price for sustainability,” said Joris Hoff, a spokesperson for Rabobank.
Wherever the money comes from, pulling off a transformation of Dutch farming would require cooperation across society, and a committed long-term approach by the government. But the last few months have been a bleak referendum on the Netherlands’ prospects there, along with, increasingly, the EU itself.
“My fear is that environmentally friendly policies will increasingly become these sorts of divisive issues, which in a democracy will result in deadlock at precisely the moment when deadlock is the thing we can least afford,” said Ewald Engelen of the University of Amsterdam.
A bull in the road for Europe’s green movement
After months of negotiations with Rutte’s cabinet, in late June the LTO announced that talks over the future of Dutch farming had hit a dead end and it was pulling out. The parties had reached an impasse over how many cows could be kept per hectare, and whether regulations on emissions were to be binding or voluntary.
For weeks, the negotiations had been teetering on a cliff, but now they had hit the rocks below.
“It does not lead to the restoration of trust between our industry and the government that we so desperately need,” the LTO chair said in a video message to the association’s members.
Reluctantly, Rutte’s cabinet said that with or without the LTO’s support, it would draw up and implement its own agricultural reform plan. But the collapse of the talks was an ominous sign for the government. A month later, embroiled in a dispute with members of his coalition over asylum policy, the longest-serving prime minister in Dutch history tendered his resignation. (Rutte remains head of the “caretaker” government until elections expected in November.)
Rutte’s resignation shocked most political observers. But not the BBB. Since their big win in March, party officials had been waiting for this moment, predicting the demise of the ruling coalition and telling reporters they expected parliamentary elections to be held before the end of the year.
Rutte’s government drowned in the quicksand of European migration policy, but years of nitrogen-related political gridlock had already weighed it down. For all its belated efforts to address the stikstofcrisis, Rutte’s cabinet will now leave office without having made a meaningful dent.
The BBB says it’s ready to capitalize on that failure. According to recent polls, the party is currently in a three-way tie for the lead. There’s a not-unimaginable future where a year from now, the BBB’s leader, Caroline van der Plas, will have risen from complete obscurity to become the next prime minister of the Netherlands.
By one telling, the last four years in the Netherlands have been a warning sign for the global environmental movement. When plans to address biodiversity and climate change — whether through decarbonization, expansion of conservation areas, or agricultural reform — collide with people’s livelihoods and sense of place in the world, chaos can and will follow.
“Political scientists have already … predicted that the green transition will become a new political cleavage,” said Jeroen Candel, a political scientist at Wageningen.
As the environment continues to buckle under the destructive power of our economic systems, pressure to shift course fast will become increasingly urgent. But if the people whose lives will be drastically altered by environmental policy aren’t on board with the changes, they will react fiercely to their imposition. And if they channel that fury into movements that vow to block the green agenda — or worse, deny the problems it was designed to solve even exist at all — the world is likely to become trapped in a spiral of biodiversity and climate breakdown.
Already, the Netherlands’ political miasma has begun to seep across its borders, a cloud descending onto other parts of Europe like ammonia from a megafarm. In the same week that Rutte resigned, the flagship conservation package of the EU’s “Green Deal,” the Nature Restoration Law, barely passed in a hotly contested vote in the European Parliament. For months, lobbyists for the agricultural industry had campaigned hard against the law. In the end, it squeaked through — but not before key provisions were gutted by their allies on the right.
Outside the vote, rival protesters faced off, holding placards and waving banners. On one side, Greta Thunberg stood with a crowd of youthful environmentalists, exhorting parliamentarians inside to “pass the strongest law possible.” On the other, farmers from 20 countries across the continent had gathered to demonstrate against it. Dozens had driven their tractors to the protest.
The Netherlands, known for its cheese wheels and stroopwafels, can now add a new EU export to its list.
“If there is some kind of main message of the Netherlands towards the world, it would be to act now,” said Kirsten Haanraads of WWF Netherlands. “The environmental and societal costs will be much higher and more painful if we wait too long, for farmers and citizens alike.”
Koetse, M. J., & Bouma, J. A. (2022). Incentivizing a regime change in Dutch agriculture. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 44, 265-282. doi:10.1016/j.eist.2022.08.001