LEIDEN, Netherlands — On a strip of land amid the canals that crisscross the flat Dutch countryside, 50 black and white Holstein cows stand, heads bowed, munching a lunch of hay served to them by their owner, the farmer Wilbert van der Post. .
“I’m the fourth generation on this farm,” van der Post says as he spreads the hay on the barn floor. “My great-grandfather arrived here around 1900.”
Van der Post now fears he is the last generation of farmers in his family. The manure and urine produced by his cows are rich in nitrogen compounds that contribute to smog, which is harmful to the lungs of his country’s 17.5 million people. Van der Post’s cows are among tens of millions of animals across the country contributing to what environmentalists call a nitrogen crisis.
The Netherlands, the size of Maryland, is the world’s second-largest food exporter. It is one of the most cultivated countries in the world and its soil contains high levels of environmentally harmful nitrogen compounds from both animal manure and fertilizers.
A series of court rulings have forced the Dutch government to find ways to reduce nitrogen pollution, including cutting animal herds in half by the end of this decade.
“If every farmer has to reduce their livestock by 50%, that will be a problem for me,” says van der Post. “It’s not possible to make money from this.”
Van der Post says he has already turned to other ways of making money. He organizes school field trips to his farm and corporate retreats.
“We cuddle the cows,” he explains. “That’s when people come here and pay us to lie to a cow.”
But at about $50 per cow cuddle session, it’s still not enough to allow him to earn a steady income thanks to the new nitrogen reduction rules.
Environmental awareness requires change in Dutch agriculture
These rules, environmentalists say, are implemented for a reason.
“We have a huge amount of manure and a huge amount of emissions that are rarely found anywhere else in the world,” says Natasja Oerlemans, head of food and agriculture at the World Wide Fund for Nature. Down.
“Basically, a former minister put it this way: we import all this food, we produce meat and dairy, and we export 70 to 80% of the meat and dairy,” she explains. . “And the shit stays here, literally.”
Oerlemans says Dutch farmers import most of their animals and nitrogen-rich foods. This small country produces meat, dairy and eggs from 4 million cows, 13 million pigs and 104 million chickens each year. She says the urine and manure produced by these animals emit high levels of nitrogen compounds.
“If you look at European maps of nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands, it’s not even dark red, it’s not even purple, but it’s black,” says Oerlemans. “This is the highest value in Europe for nitrogen emissions.”
Oerlemans supports the 2019 Dutch court ruling ordering the government to do something to significantly reduce these emissions, but she also thinks farmers should receive government subsidies while they cull their herds and move to less intensive farming.
Dutch farmers, however, would prefer to maintain the status quo. They shut down the country’s highways with their tractors to protest proposed nitrogen rules.
Over the past four years, these rallies have evolved into what is known as the Farmer-Citizen Movement, a political party that shocked many earlier this year when it won 16 of the 75 seats in the Dutch Senate, more than than any other party.
The party has garnered support well beyond the country’s 50,000 farmers and now sits third in polls as the country prepares for national elections in late November.
Farmers’ protests resonated beyond the fields
“People in the Netherlands feel that the needs of the government are more important than those of the citizens,” says Caroline van der Plas, founder of the Farmer-Citizen Movement party, known in Dutch as BoerBurgerBeweging, or by its acronym, the BBB.
Political analysts and Dutch media have called the BBB a protest movement and a single-minded party, but van der Plas, who spent much of her career as a journalist and is now a member of parliament – and has never worked as a farmer – is quick to differ.
“I have the feeling that those who are afraid of seeing the BBB expand because of course it affects the traditional parties and traditional politics, are the ones who say that we are a party focused on a single cause,” says- She.
During her years in Parliament, van der Plas became popular for her direct style and her ability to go beyond nitrogen rules to criticize government interference in the lives of citizens at large.
“A lot of people are worried about their future,” she says. “They’re worried about, ‘Will my kids be able to buy a house in the next few years?’ They’re worried about all the skyrocketing costs, the price of food and gas. People can no longer pay their bills because everything is becoming too expensive and they find in us a party they trust.
Van der Plas says she wants government to be more accessible to citizens, not a disembodied entity that makes decisions on behalf of citizens without their consent.
Wouter van der Brug, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam, says van der Plas and his party have managed to tap into a broader sense of unease among Dutch voters that the government is not serving their interests.
“It probably comes from a deeper feeling that society is moving too fast and is not going in a direction that people like,” says van der Brug. “And also that these new measures that probably need to be implemented to protect the environment are also being imposed on us for no good reason by external forces.”
Farmer Wilbur van der Post, in his barn with his cows, agrees. He says the proposed nitrogen ban would reduce emissions in the Netherlands, but would not reduce global nitrogen emissions.
“We produce more per hectare than other countries with the same amount of manure,” he says. “The footprint is one of the lowest in the world. If we reduce the agricultural sector here in the Netherlands, other countries will have to produce more. But there the footprint is higher.”
And that’s why, he says, he will vote for the Peasant-Citizens Movement on election day, November 22. Unless his party ends up in government, he says, no amount of cow hugging will quell his anger. towards those in positions of power.
Esme Nicholson contributed to this report.
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