“Zijn er ook boeren?” shouted Mick Jagger, in Dutch, into the microphone at a Rolling Stones concert in the Netherlands last week. “Are there any farmers in the house?”
Dutch farmers make for an unlikely cause célèbre. For starters, most are conservative, not liberal. And they are fighting against stricter environmental regulations, not for them.
Yet they are winning over liberal-minded people like me who sympathize with the family farmers who provide us with our daily bread and yet receive so little respect from society’s ruling elites. And they’re inspiring protests by other farmers across Europe, including in Germany, Poland and Italy.
I have praised the current Dutch government for being sensible on matters like climate change. Last year it embraced nuclear energy, one of the first Western nations to do so since the 2011 Fukushima accident spooked the world.
But the government’s poor treatment of its farmers has shocked me. The prime minister recently called the protesting farmers “a – – holes,” and sniffed: “It is not acceptable to create dangerous situations.” And yet it was a Dutch police officer, not a farmer, who inexplicably fired on a 16-year-old boy driving a tractor. Luckily, he wasn’t injured.
While nitrogen pollution worsens climate change, the government says its main motivation for reducing it is about protecting its nature areas. Scientists say that in 118 of 162 of the Netherlands’ nature preserves nitrogen deposits are 50% higher than they should be.
Without a doubt the Dutch should do more to protect their nature areas. The country produces four times more nitrogen pollution than the European average, due to its intensive animal agriculture.
The Netherlands is the largest exporter of meat in Europe and the second largest exporter of food overall after the United States, a remarkable feat for a nation half the size of Indiana. Food exports generate more than $100 billion a year in revenue. Experts attribute the nation’s success to its farmer’s embrace of technological innovation.
But even many on the political left say the government demands are too extreme, based on radical green fantasies and dodgy science.
“It seems to be very fast,” said Wim de Vries, a professor at Wageningen University and Research who 10 years ago made alarmist claims about “planetary boundaries.”
The government is demanding a cut in nitrogen pollution of 50% by 2030. That amount would require a livestock reduction of one-third or more and thus bankrupt many farmers.
And the farmers say the government’s pollution measurement model is inaccurate. They say measurements near sea water distort nitrogen calculations.
Data show ammonia pollution from manure has already declined by nearly 70% since 1990. And farmers say they will continue to reduce pollution as they put in place low-cost, common-sense fixes, like diluting manure with water, injecting it into the soil and more frequently washing down barn floors.
Netherlands is something of a model for the efficient use of nitrogen fertilizer in farming. Since the early 1960s, the Netherlands has doubled its yields while using the same amount of fertilizer. It’s hard not to conclude that politics and green ideology, more than science and reason, are driving the government’s decision.
The Netherlands has had a nitrogen-pollution permitting system in place since 2015, but that hasn’t satisfied green groups, which want to see significant declines in meat production. A left-wing green-like party, D66, joined the governing coalition in January on the condition that the government reduce the number of animals by half.
“There is a small group of left-wing people, many of whom are vegetarians, who have for 35 years made many arguments to reduce livestock,” said Jan Cees Volgelaar, former chairman of the national dairy farmers association.
Farmers suspect that the government’s motivation is to reduce farmland so more housing can be built for the nation’s rising immigrant population. They point to statements by the Minister of Nature and Nitrogen, “We need speed because we need houses,” which have been echoed by the prime minister.
Meanwhile, many are flying the national flag upside down in solidarity with the farmers. A new poll released two days ago shows that, if elections were held today, the ruling VVD party would lose 13 of its 34 seats in parliament and its allied D66 party would lose 11 of its 24 seats. By contrast, the party of the farmers, the “Farmer-Citizen Movement,” or BBB, which formed just three years ago, would go from having just one seat to 20.
It’s not too late for the government to change. It was a pioneer last year in its sensible embrace of nuclear energy. It could be a pioneer again by rejecting demands from the radical greens and embracing a more incremental, science-and-technology based approach to pollution.
After all, when you’ve lost Mick Jagger, you’ve lost the world.
Michael Shellenberger is the author of “Apocalypse Never” and a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment.”