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Cucumber Saudis: How the Dutch were too good at farming

Vdairy visitor Farms are always advised to watch their step. Those who inspect the three dozen cows that Minke van Wingerden and her team raise are more worried than landing in manure: the entire farm is built on a floating platform, a 20-minute drive from Rotterdam Central Station. One wrong step and you’ll be in the river Nieuwe Maas Plop plop plop plop plop plop plop plop plop plop plop plop plop. Forget the view of the peaceful Frisian countryside: the animals spend all day overlooking tankers and trucks unloading at Europe’s largest port.all day Schitt– The cleaning robot cleans the milking area to keep it clean. On the lower two levels of the barge, the output of the cows is variously converted into cheese or manure.

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Ms Van Wingerden’s floating farm is a good example of centuries-old Dutch thinking about how to grow large amounts of food in crowded corners of northern Europe. Since the days of Rembrandt and Vermeer, land reclamation and windmills have been erected to drain the plains. Town-scale greenhouses are used to grow tulips or vegetables. Food shortages during World War II convinced the Dutch that they needed to grow as much land as possible. Calvinist industriousness has made the Netherlands an unlikely agricultural powerhouse: With annual farm sales abroad of more than 100 billion euros ($108 billion), it is the world’s largest agricultural exporter after the United States, which is its largest in size. 250 times more. Some of them are imported food for re-export. But the Dutch produce twice as much cheese per capita as the French.

Two problems have long plagued Dutch agriculture. The first question is whether quantity makes up for quality: after tasting the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers grown in its ultra-efficient greenhouses, one might be forgiven for not being able to tell them apart. The second is whether its approach makes sense.The Netherlands is the most densely populated country in the world European Union Pub Little Malta; officials joked it was a city-state in the making. Despite the efficiency of its farmers, the sector is a footnote to the modern Dutch economy, employing only 2.5% of workers. Countries often choose between having a lot of farms or a lot of people. The Dutch do it by eating their Gouda cheese. That leaves farmers and politicians alike in a pile of natural manure.

For decades, people have wondered about the limits of the Dutch model of turbo farming. Back in the 80s, authorities realized that importing more animal feed would lead to more animal waste. However, the limits of the land are constantly being tested: Dutch farms keep four times as many animals (by weight) as any other farm in Europe per acre. The result of all this gut excretion is excess nitrogen, a key nutrient for plants, but in excess it can destabilize ecosystems. Cars and industry also emit nitrogen compounds. All of this leads to the destruction of soil and pollution of waterways. Flora that thrive on excess nitrogen have been killing plants that would otherwise be trying to compete for the resource. This in turn creates a chain reaction, all of which scientists don’t understand.

Ernst van den Ende of Wageningen University, a food research center, says that individual Dutch farms are not much of a problem, and they are usually a model of sustainability. The problem is that there are too many of them, and too much nitrogen is emitted.For more than a decade, efforts have been made (mostly ineffective) to reduce such emissions to meet European Union Rules for the protection of nature reserves. But in 2019, things came to a head. A decree by the Dutch Supreme Court has dealt an unexpected blow to a meaningless law. Every activity that results in the production of nitrogen—including the construction of buildings, roads, and other infrastructure—requires a reduction in nitrogen use elsewhere in the future. There is a housing shortage in the country, but new construction is already limited by the rules. The daytime speed limit on motorways has been lowered from 130km/h to 100km/h in the hope that lower emissions will allow the rest of the economy to continue to grow. Schiphol, one of the world’s busiest airports, closed them by buying farms so planes could take off.

Crisis is all-encompassing. The bastion of free-market liberalism in Europe has morphed into something akin to a planned economy, with the “Minister of Nature and Nitrogen Policy” as its chief commissioner. In the end, it became clear that a piecemeal approach would not work. A sweeping plan to halve nitrogen emissions by 2030 was unveiled last year. The government said it would pay 24 billion euros to buy out as many as 3,000 big emitters, mainly farms. Livestock numbers will drop by almost a third. The era of growing agricultural exports is over.

holy cow this way please

Oddly enough, even in a country overcrowded, picking people over cattle would be politically fraught. The prospect of takeover or expropriation has sparked protests by farmers across the country. (Think hay bales burned and nitrogen-rich animal matter dumped on highways.) The uprising hit the ballot box last week. A new party representing farmers won local elections on March 15, topping polls to elect the national senate and regional governments. In a country with only 244,000 agricultural employees, the Farmers’ Party got 1.5 million votes, or 19 percent of the total. City dwellers supported it out of nostalgia for farmers and displeasure with nagging authorities. Whether the government can enforce nitrogen cuts is still up in the air.

Other countries are also heading towards a nitrogen crisis; neighboring Belgium is also crowded and already has one. But the broader similarities lie in carbon emissions, which Europe plans to cut to “net zero” by 2050. This will require adaptation far beyond what the Netherlands has experienced with respect to nitrogen. The Netherlands is a generally well-run place that has struggled to adapt its economy to ecological constraints known for decades. That doesn’t bode well for everyone else.

Read more from our European politics columnist Charlemagne:
Europe has led the global assault on Big Tech. But does it need a new approach? (March 16)
Germany is letting domestic squabbles pollute Europe’s green ambitions (March 9)
After seven years of Brexit negotiations, Europe is the clear winner (March 2)

Plus: How the Charlemagne Column Got Its Name

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