Report: Dutch agricultural policy, looking back to look ahead

The farmers’ protests in October inspired us to organize a series of two events to reflect on the currently highly contested agricultural policies in the Netherlands. On November the 20th we focused on ‘What went wrong?’ with Frits van der Schans. He is a farmer’s son who works at Centrum voor Landbouw en Milieu, an independent research institute. He advises, amongst others, the government on issues related to sustainable and circular agriculture with a main passion for the dairy sector.

In order to understand why the intensive Dutch agriculture shows signs of decline, a short historic overview was given. Frits did not start with the ‘Never hunger again’ from Mansholt, but with the hunger winter itself. He explained that the hunger winter was not a consequence of lack of food, but a result of a lack of access to food. The Dutch government in England prevented transport of food produced in the east of the Netherlands to the west. So ‘Never hunger again’ was a bit misleading, although his policy did ignite the Dutch economy again. However as a result of this neoliberalism, agriculture was left to the world market and other parties started to dominate the food chain. Especially the role of banks had and still has a huge impact on farmer’s reality. The consolidation of small agricultural village banks to large organisations managed by people without any agricultural background and a financial system focused on lending money instead of using savings, increasingly trapped farmers in a rat race and dependency on banks, which demanded margins to be kept the same, resulting in expansions or intensification for every loan.

After discussing these broad trends, the focus was on the current nitrogen deposition crisis in the Netherlands, which is partly due to agriculture. In 1995, it was already known that nitrogen deposition was on average 7 times too high for nature development. New policies were effective in reducing the emissions from 350 kilo tonnes to a 130 kilotonnes. In the early 2000’s the European Union demanded this same amount from the Netherlands for health reasons. Although the aimed reduction to 30- 50 kilotonnes for nature development was not yet reached, the neoliberal government stopped pushing for further reductions. The problem was denied and kept under the table until the court’s decision in May 2019.

The current crises in agriculture offers the opportunity to the government to stop with only introducing ‘end of the pipe solutions’ and further redesign an agricultural system that is more future proof. But how should that look like? What kind of governance is needed and what should be the role of the WUR? These and more questions will be addressed during the second event on the 4th of December. Jeroen Candel, assistant professor at the public administration and policy group, and Tom Kuhlman, senior regional economist at LEI will share their views, after which there will be a general discussion with you!