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Dutch farmers at the center of the sustainability debate

What happened?

In May, the Dutch Council of State ruled that the Dutch nitrogen policy is not compliant with EU nature legislation, leading to tighter regulation. A report by the RIVM (the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) had shown the amount of yearly emitted ammonia, measured over the preceding years, had increased significantly. Ammonia (NH3) comes primarily from animals in livestock farming and is used in fertilizers, but is detrimental to biodiversity. Due to distrust of the RIVM findings, the blame they faced for high nitrogen emissions, and the stringent new rules, Dutch farmers headed to local governments all over the country, resulting in the largest traffic congestion in Dutch history.

What does this mean?

The increasing attention for sustainability and its polarizing effect on Western societies has turned the (Dutch) countryside into a political arena. Because of agriculture’s contribution to climate change, air pollution, decreasing biodiversity, soil erosion, water scarcity and other environmental costs, farmers are becoming targets in this debate and they face many new rules and regulations (cutting production, fewer subsidies, limits to the number of kept animals). But although farmers have to recognize that environmental reforms are necessary, they are only part of the problem. Western consumers pay unrealistically little for food, as food prices do not include environmental costs. Sustainable farming means consumers will have to pay for this as well. While in the climate debate, suppliers are often blamed for forcing farmers to compete with low food prices, the demand side is equally responsible for a sustainable future.

What’s next?

In the long run, the Netherlands will have to transform its livestock sector in order to realize the Ministry of Agriculture’s ambitions to create circular agriculture. Currently, livestock farming is a cornerstone of the Dutch economy, not necessarily in terms of the country’s own food consumption, more so in terms of food exports. Three-quarters of Dutch pigs and a large proportion of beef and dairy are sold abroad. Instead of exporting volumes of meat to countries all over the world, the country could take the lead as a sustainable food nation and have a large impact on a global scale by producing and exporting clean meat (meat substitutes, plant-based protein products).