Nikola B (Workers GB Writers Group)
A farmers’ revolt is being waged across the Netherlands. An agrarian revolution of the 21st-century against the Dutch government and the EU, a fight neither side can afford to lose. The objectives of the EU are to align environmental objectives with the agri-food sector. For farmers, it is to save their way of life: their homes, families, businesses and communities from what they regard as a government land grab. Many see what is being played out in this tiny country as an experimental exercise that could have massive ramifications for the rest of the food and agricultural sector of the 27 EU countries.
The EU came out in support of globalist Mark Rutte’s Dutch ruling coalition’s brutal scheme announced in June 2022. In plans, more worthy of the Old Testament than a modern nation state, 2,000 to 3,000 “peak polluters”, mainly farms, are to be forcibly shut down in compliance with the EU’s designated Natura 2000 habitat protected zones.
The EU overcame its initial hesitance, not on humanitarian grounds, but concern that support for the scheme would conflict with EU state aid rules. The government wants to cut nitrogen emissions overall by 50% by 2030, whilst the agriculture sector’s contribution, in what the cabinet have described as an ‘unavoidable transition’, is jacked up to a target cut of a whopping 70% to 95% in 131 key areas. These targets could well be regarded as unrealistic, setting farmers up for failure. With sustainability, relocation or termination as their options, farmers are also expected to reduce their farming animal population by 30% with some reports estimating as much as 50% with hard hitting financial penalties for those who do not comply. This type of livestock reduction many believe will force farms to shut down.
Legal action brought by the prolific litigious green campaigner Johan Vollenbroek along with EU legislation “jettisoned” as Politico reported in March 2023: “the country’s permitting system for nitrogen pollution. No longer could construction companies, factories or farms obtain permission for polluting beyond the legal limits with a promise to make up for it later. That has left thousands of businesses now effectively operating illegally and the government scrambling to come up with solutions. The stikstofcrisis — or nitrogen crisis — ripped across Dutch industry but it fell hardest on the farmers…”
Caught in the cross hairs of two court decisions: the 2018 ECJ (European Court of Justice) ruling that the Dutch government was failing to deal with the country’s high nitrogen emissions and the 2019 Council of State ruling that the government’s nitrogen strategy was insufficient in terms of EU directives, farmers are now paying a heavy price for the Dutch government’s ostrich like approach in dealing with nitrogen emissions over the last 20 years.
In EURACTIV’s agrifood podcast, BirdLife Europe’s Ariel Brunner opined that the issue should have been addressed “decades ago when we adopted the Habitats Directive and the Nitrates Directive.” Jeroen Candel, associate professor of food and agricultural policy at Wageningen University, stated in the podcast: “The government has always favoured short-term economic interests in the agricultural sector over environmental concerns… telling farmers, you can continue expanding your stables, you can continue to innovate and this will be enough to deal with the environmental pressures. You don’t need to take any measures at the source. Understandably farmers are very upset about the draconian measures that are now needed to be taken in order to comply with this court decision as well as EU legislation.”
Faced with an offer they can’t refuse, farmers who comply with the buyout scheme will, within a limited window, be paid an “incentivising”, 120% of the farms’ market value, those who don’t, will be subject to a forced buyout. The buyout scheme does not recognise the unquantifiable value of many of these farms, passed down through generations, some over centuries, steeped in an ancestral weight of responsibility not only to their forefathers but to future generations. To add insult to injury there are concerns the buyout scheme may prohibit these farmers from moving to other countries as some have already done, to start farming afresh, banning them in perpetuity, an accumulated wealth of skills and knowledge, lost forever.
Nitrous oxide accounts for around 6% of greenhouse gases. The 2,000 to 3,000 ‘peak polluters’ identified by the Dutch Government include, according to the Guardian, Tata Steel, Schiphol Airport, refineries owned by Shell, BP and Esso and Darrell chemicals. However the Guardian also reported on 30 November 2022 an agricultural ministry spokesperson told the paper, the ‘peak polluters’ were ‘mostly farmers’’.
The agricultural sector plays a pivotal part in the Dutch economy, exporting agri-food products worldwide, contributing approximately 7% to its GDP. Second only to the US in exports, yet only 0.42% its size, it was worth nearly €96 billion in 2020. Fifteen out of the world’s top twenty agrifood companies such as Nestlé, Cargill, Heinz, Monsanto, Unilever and Mars have major production sites there. Holland is also the largest meat exporter in Europe.
With the Dutch government on a roll, yet more farm closures are in the pipeline. Over 50% of the Netherland’s 50,000 farms will be adversely affected, with an estimated 11,200 farm closures and another 17,600 farms having to significantly reduce their livestock. The knock-on effect will be felt within the Dutch economy with jobs allied to farming as well as local communities and businesses all suffering as a consequence.
The pollutants of concern to the Dutch government are nitrogen oxides from burning fossil fuels in the energy or the transport sector, and ammonia and nitrous oxide created by livestock (where pee meets poo) in the farming industry as well as fertilisers containing nitrogen. This causes acidification of soil and water and is a major threat to biodiversity and human health. Europe is the third most populated continent on the planet. Parts of Italy, France, Denmark, Ireland as well as the UK, whilst not in the EU, all struggle with excessive deposits. DW News reported in July 2022: “Neighbouring Belgium, which has the third highest EU livestock concentration and a major nitrogen problem as well, is watching the Netherlands closely… Germany is another potential powderkeg because of a new legislative package on waterborne nitrogen pollution; France could also follow.”
The ramifications from the Netherlands’ experience or experiment, farmers fear, may escalate across Europe. As the Guardian reported: “… legal experts point out that the law already exists for such climate-related policy to be introduced. Jacques Sluysman, professor of expropriation law at Radboud University Nijmegen, said most European countries have such laws.”
The disparity in treatment between the farming and industrial sectors is a source of much anger for the farmers. In March 2023, Reuter’s reported on farmers from Flanders driving thousands of tractors into Brussels, demonstrating over regional government plans to limit nitrogen emissions with one demonstrator stating: “We are all convinced that something has to change nitrogen-wise, but the agricultural sector should not be treated differently to the industrial sector.” Another demonstrator added: “Our sector is already making a lot of effort and is willing to do so as well, but (the government) expects more and more from us while the industry sector is also expanding.”
The farmers may have a point. The WWF, in a damning report of November 2022, revealed how the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), a cornerstone of the EU’s policy to combat climate change, is essentially working against its ethos of “polluters pay” when dealing with heavy industry, power and aviation. Covering the report, the Guardian stated: “Big polluting industries have been given almost €100bn (£86bn) in free carbon permits by the EU in the last nine years… Free pollution permits worth €98.5bn were given to energy-intensive sectors including steel, cement, chemicals and aviation from 2013-21… the free permits did not come with climate conditions attached, such as increasing energy efficiency and some polluters were also able to make billions in windfall profits by selling the permits they did not use.” The end date to free allowances range anywhere from 2032 to 2036.
Meanwhile Politico reported that in November 2022 the EU Commission “has decided to go easy” on emissions from conventional cars, “opting to take a pass on reining in other killer emissions… like ammonia and nitrogen oxide.” An exhaust engineer at NGO Transport and Environment commented: “The proposals for the cars are so weak, the auto industry might have drafted them themselves.”
InfluenceMap, an independent think tank analysing how business and finance are impacting the climate crisis, in a study of the aviation industry June 2021, found the industry had “emerged as one of the strongest opponents of climate policy in Europe”, choosing a “lobbying strategy to avoid effective regulation,” rather than a process of transformation, revealing 10 airlines had accepted “€30 billion in government bailouts since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.” One only has to scratch the surface to see the jaw dropping disparity of treatment of the EU of Dutch farmers and big industry and certainly gives credence to the farmers’ claims.
The EU’s Farm to Fork (F2F) or “Farm to Famished” strategy unveiled in 2020 is designed to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint. Its objective, outlined in a five point plan, is to: “accelerate our transition to a sustainable food system.” According to the European Scientist (ES) in March 2023, green groups see F2F as putting “organic farming at the heart of the transition to sustainable food systems.” An impact assessment by Wageningen University stated: “F2F policy switch would decrease EU crop output by 10-20%.” A “significant unintended consequence” of European food shortfalls, according to a USDA study, would be an additional 22 million food insecure people, as well as a rise in food prices by 17%. Clearly food insecurity for working class people and vulnerable groups is of little concern to the EU in the greater scheme of things.
Methane emissions are another issue for the EU. A single cow produces between 154 to 264 pounds of methane gas per year. The two Nordstream explosions released 300,000 tons of methane, the approximate equivalent of 3 million cows, that’s a lot of cow burps and farts released into the atmosphere, an environmental catastrophe, as well as an act of war on an EU member country. The Netherlands has 1.58 million dairy cows and calves. Whilst the Dutch farmers have been driven to despair following the decision of their government and backed by the EU who encouraged them to do what they do best, the EU has done nothing in response to this sabotage of critical EU infrastructure and environmental vandalism.
Following the Ukraine war and the EU’s boomeranging sanctions, F2F, the planning which pre-dates the war, is coming under scrutiny in an attempt to shore up food security. The EU imports over 50% of its cereals, 23% and 72% of its vegetable and rapeseed oils respectively and a quarter of its poultry meat from Ukraine. Russia is a global supplier of fertilisers, vegetable oils, wheat and barley. Since Russia’s military operation, food and energy prices have rocketed. In a twist of irony, EU fertiliser sanctions have meant a heavier reliance on their own producers. However due to high energy costs some companies have ceased production and others ceased to accept further orders.
An EU Parliamentary research paper of April 2022 on the implications of the Ukraine war on food policy advised, because of ‘acute shortages’ facing Member States, the Commission decided to allow them temporarily to set their own rules for the Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) of pesticides on imported crops. Food Safety magazine reported: “… dwindling grain supplies caused by the war in Ukraine may soon affect European farmers’ abilities to feed their livestock. In light of the Commission’s decision… Spain is now allowing chlorpyrifos and dichlorvos, two pesticides that are banned by the EU, to exceed MRLs that are considered safe for consumers by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).” In response, the Commission has urged Spanish authorities to explain their rationale. As the saying goes: You are what you eat… ate.
The consequence of the Ukraine war has put a spanner in the works of F2F. Green campaigners are in no mood to compromise and do not see the war as an obstacle to F2F’s implementation. On the opposite side, several Agri Committee MEPs, its chair and farmers organisations who have called, as reported in April 2022 by Farms Europe, “to pause the ambitions of the strategy to give the production reality time to re-adjust to the new market situation..”
The Commission has allowed a relaxation from sustainability restrictions, such as allowing cultivation of fallow lands in environmentally protected areas to increase the yields and to hold on the proposal on pesticides and biodiversity. Farms Europe also reported that in the European Parliament passed an amendment on food security within the context of the war and its relevance to the Farm to Fork’s objectives, “asking not to implement the 10% Ecological Focused Areas target foreseen in the F2F considering the new context. During another vote, the 25% target for organic farming has also been challenged.” However there appears to be no reprieve or recognition of the Dutch farmers’ almost peerless global agri-food contribution, at a time of international food insecurity, it would seem ideology has overcome common sense.
In the last 50 years the world’s population has more than doubled and global food production more than tripled. Statis reports: “The market value of the meat industry is expected to rise from 897.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2021 to over 1.3 trillion dollars by 2027.” The climate crisis by its very nature is sans borders. The Netherlands accounts for just 0.46% of the world’s CO2 emissions and forcing the farmers off their land will do nothing to reduce the real problem of climate change. The nature of capitalism is such that with the Netherlands out of the picture there will always be other countries, some with less stringent policies on sustainable farming to pick up the slack.
The Dutch farmers are fighting back. The March 2023 elections, viewed by many as a de facto referendum on Rutte’s (aka Teflon Mark) government, saw the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) win 16% of the vote on a 57.5% turnout, taking 17 of the 75 seats in the Senate. Gaining votes mainly from the right and centre of the electorate, BBB has become the biggest party in each of the 12 provinces. Not too shabby for a party formed only four years ago. One could almost compare the BBB’s success to the UK’s Brexit. The farmers are now in the vanguard, challenging the elites who appear either oblivious, detached or both to the implications pursuing their own agenda has on the lives of working class people who will almost certainly be collateral damage if the Dutch government and EU has its way.
The Dutch Fishermen’s Union have also come out in support of the farmers, coinciding their own action with the farmers, blocking Harlingen port. They are protesting against soaring fuel prices, offshore wind farms developments being built on traditional North Sea fishing grounds pushing them into busy shipping lanes and the introduction of new fishing regulations in marine protected areas.
According to Reuters – June 2021, a report by the European Court of Auditors, found €100bn from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funds “attributed during the period of 2014-2020 to climate action had little impact on the agricultural emissions… CAP has promoted animal products and encouraged farmers to not reduce their livestock numbers because then they would receive less money…”
Prima facie evidence would certainly suggest the nitrogen crisis is home grown in Brussels, exported to member states and farmers dispatched to slaughter. The EU is part of the problem and has so far demonstrated it has no idea how to be part of the solution.
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