Dutch Farmers' Protests: Government Backs Itself into a Corner Due to Decades of Inaction
Government Backs Itself into a Corner Due to Decades of Inaction
[Image: This fantastic piece of photography was taken and published during the 2019 conflict between Dutch farmers and their government. It is being used repeatedly on social media to represent the current conflict. Reuters’ “fact checkers” describe the picture as not associated with the current conflict. This does seem a little perverse. As we shall see, this conflict is 30 years old and lay dormant until an environmental group identified the appropriate European Economic Community Directive to take the Dutch government before the European Court of Justice in 2017. The legal battle would have begun years before that. The above image is a part of this conflict, whatever Reuters says.]
Publication date: 2022-07-06
Update 2022-07-07: Reader feedback has been applied to improve the article.
Update 2022-07-08: The agricultural protest movement is spreading further in northern Europe, joining their southern allies. Jimmy Dore and Al Jazeera videos are added to sources.
Update 2022-07-13: An article by Eva K. Bartlett is added to sources to support the position that Black Sea exports from Ukraine are blocked by Ukraine laid mines, not Russia.
A Media Blackout
If a European country had protests which blocked international borders, blocked major highways, blocked ferry ports, blocked airports, protested parliament and sprayed a regional government office in manure one would think that these events would be reported in "the news".
The lack of reporting of the ongoing protests, begun by Dutch “Intensive Animal Husbandry” (IAH) farmers now joined by commercial fishers, is quizzical.
The protesters have been using their available materials and tools similar to, though more innovative than, the Canadian transport workers' "truckers" protests earlier this year. The innovative tactics by the Dutch farmers have included blocking roads with large compressed hay bales, and in some cases placing these on the median strip between lanes on a highway and setting them on fire, injuring nobody but alerting all.
[Image: bales ablaze.]
Perhaps the most poetic and creative of the protests was to drive to a regional government building and deposit there a few stacks of likely soiled hay and then spray them and the building with liquefied animal shit.
"You're policies stink!"
[Image: in the front is a tractor with a ‘grab’ mechanism. Behind it is a tanker reversed in by another tractor. It is spraying liquefied manure on the piles of hay and the building which are out of frame to the right. Both of the above images are screenshots from a TikTok video re-posted on Twitter.]
Despite the available dramatic scenes of burning hay bales, traffic blocked for kilometres, and large public protests the story is absent from the "mainstream media" (MSM). BBC? Nope. NYT? Nope. This is puzzling. A plausible explanation is that the topic is complex, which implies that these publications don’t care and are lazy. Surveying the few MSM reports yields the following results for the number of words in each published article:
Obviously, neither of these articles provide any background or context to the protests. Thus, there is an effective media blackout in operation. The exceptions are local Dutch news, the agricultural trade press, and some independent media. The most informative article is from 2019 by a Swedish environmental news site, Acid News.
A short comment by Gonzalo Lira (See Sources) caught this author's ear. Mr. Lira described the protests, including 40 000 farmers, and observed that it takes quite a bit to get the Dutch up in arms, or lighting hay bales. Is there some injustice, or monumentally heavy handed government action at hand?
Whatever the case, the lines of conflict are drawn: the Dutch animal husbandry and commercial fishing industries are in conflict with their government.
A Long Under-Reported Story
The saga begins in 1992 with the European Economic Community (remember that?) adopting Council Directive 92/43/EEC, an effort to preserve biodiversity in Europe. The directive defined a series of zones called “Natura 2000” to receive environmental protection. Each member nation was required to enact legislation to preserve the identified areas within their jurisdiction. 25 years later an environmental group named Mobilisation for the Environment lodged a case with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) challenging the Dutch government's legislation to enforce the directive.
In 2018 the ECJ handed down its judgement that the Dutch laws were insufficient to protect the sensitive ecological areas. The problems were and are nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. These gases include NO (nitric oxide), NO 2 (nitrogen dioxide), and N2 O (nitrous oxide) each with differing production sources and differing impacts on human health, ecological health or global warming. The problem is not “nitrogren” (N2), which is the dominant gas in our atmosphere at just under 80%, but its oxides. These NOx oxides are produced by a wide range of natural and human activities. The human activities include driving, construction and farming amongst many more.
The mechanism used to enforce the directive was a permit system whereby activities which generated significant NOx emissions required a permit. Permits were only issued if the permit holder agreed to implement suitable NOx emission minimization methods. Perhaps your “spider sense” is tingling and suggesting that this was never going to work, or was potentially subject to abuse.
In May 2019 the Netherlands' highest body, the Council of State, ruled this permit system illegal, reaffirming the ECJ's ruling and forcing the government to respond.
Before we delve deeper into the conflict, this must be seen as the law working. A small concerned group found the legal challenge that would force their government to change course, and the two relevant high courts affirmed their case. No doubt it took Mobilisation for the Environment many years to achieve this result. Their tenacity is to be commended, as is their use of peaceful legal systems to further their aims. The fact that it was possible for them to succeed in this challenge is a window into the basis of the conflict today. The Dutch government’s permit system had failed to address the root causes of NOx emissions.
Government Backs Itself into a Corner Due to Decades of Inaction
The immediate consequence of the Dutch court's 2019 ruling was that thousands of construction projects which relied on the permit system had to be halted. Next, the maximum speed limit during daylight hours was reduced to 100 Km per hour. However, these two practices of construction and civilian motoring are not huge contributors to the NOx emissions problem. One of the largest, at 41%, is intensive animal farming.
The Dutch Government did what good governments are meant to do and set up a commission or advisory board and obtained input from field experts. The Netherlands has a leading scientific expert on NOx pollution, University of Leiden Professor Jan Willem Erisman, who contributed to the process for defining methods to address the challenge. Another government failure seems to have been not closely involving in these deliberations the affected community, the IAH farmers. The conclusions of the government study directed each of the 12 Dutch regional bodies to meet varying targets of animal farming reduction from 30% to 70% depending on how close farming was to these Natura 2000 habitats. Reports indicate that this will result in a culling of a third of the 100 million Dutch cattle and pig herds and chicken flocks.
The reactionary government measures induced by the court threatens the now protesting farmers.
Forced sale of their land is a direct threat to their way of life. The reduction in farming produce is also a threat to The Netherlands’ food security. Farmers, fishers and civil society are responding to these combined threats.
The protesters are well motivated with their livelihoods and industries under threat. The methods of action are reported as having been chosen by local communities rather than via a central authority. Each regional community has used the resources they possess and targeted sites in their area which will gain the attention of the parliament and citizenry.
Their most direct slogan is:
"No Farmers -- No Food"
[Video: farmers armed with liquefied manure head to a protest. It is wonderful to see the creativity of independent media creators, and to hear Queen return in protest. The videographer capturing the vehicles crossing a bridge over one of the thousands of canals in the Netherlands is fitting.]
One of the tactics has been to blockade food distribution warehouses, thus creating empty produce shelves at supermarkets. This impacts the profits of both the distribution centres and the supermarkets, and the awareness of shoppers which seems to be the point.
One protest included dumping animal manure on roads to block them. The selection of tactics has been impressive. Their variety has made it difficult for the Dutch police force to interdict operations. Myths of farmers being slow witted "country bumpkins" certainly do not apply to these Dutch farmers.
Soon to join the protests were fleets of Dutch commercial fishers. They also operate under the "permit" system and can see the writing on the wall. The captains lined up their boats to block harbour entrances preventing ferry transports to a few Dutch islands. The captains, like the farmers using horns in their tractors, have been making a hell of racket with their fog horns too.
As mentioned, there is widespread public support for the protests.
[Video: while unclear if anyone has paid for the refreshments, it is obvious that the bar staff are very happy providing them to the protesters. Unsurprisingly, the protesters are most glad to receive the relief and support. Smiles and laughter all around.]
Economics and Ownership
The Dutch economy is very strong (17th internationally) for such a small country (17 million citizens). The primary export sectors are transmission equipment for broadcasting (radio/television), petroleum products (from minerals rather than crude), technical photographic equipment and packaged medications. Only slightly further down the list are a sequence of major biological exports: foodstuffs for animal husbandry, live plants including cuttings and fungi spores, cheese and curd, bread, pastries, beer and much more. The Dutch are the second largest exporter of tomatoes worldwide, after Mexico. They are also famous for their export of flowers, particularly tulips.
[Image: Dutch economy export data from OED for 2020. At the page, after selecting the 2020 data, one can mouse over and see the different categories of exports.]
Meanwhile, basic food items do not appear among the list of top import commodities. This implies that the Dutch are food secure, which is confirmed by their food exports.
The mechanisms to achieve the intended targets for NOx emission reductions now include offers to purchase land from farmers, and forced sale of land. There are also options to improve efficiency in reduction of NOx emissions on farms. Funds have been set aside for all of these mechanisms.
The farmers seem quite happy being farmers and dominantly have no desire to change profession or lifestyle. The farmers and fishers feel ignored by the government in its process and unfairly targeted by the new NOx emission reduction policies. The level to which they feel abused is being clearly demonstrated on the streets and highways and in the ports of The Netherlands. The government has failed to sufficiently engage with these communities in forming its revised NOx emission reduction strategy. This is merely a continuation of decades of poor policy or inaction by successive Dutch governments.
Science and Politics
The study of Environmental Science and Engineering has made significant advances during the last few decades with contributions from biophysics and biology including gene assays, and from chemistry and geochemistry in more sensitive analytic techniques for organic and inorganic chemicals. Native to Environmental Science and Engineering are new methodologies like Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). These have revolutionized the discipline's ability to inform government policy. LCA tracks material impacts and costs for any product from production, whether farming or mining, through processing, transport and use, to decommissioning and waste disposal. Via methods like LCA the total energy cost or CO 2, or NOx output for a product can be calculated, and with environmental impact studies the "externalities" ignored by economics can be brought to the attention of policy makers.
Some areas are less politically controversial, such as how best to clean up a chemical spill which threatens freshwater resources. Others, such as we see in the Dutch confrontation, are between ecosystem protection and essential industries. In these cases tensions are elevated. Governments need to play a deft hand to gather experts and impacted or concerned communities so that a government can perform its key role; to balance objectives in a complex society.
In this, the Dutch government has failed disastrously. Post resolution, the relevant government agencies would be well served to re-examine how they got themselves into a position where some of their industries are spraying shit on their buildings, burning hay bales on the roads and blocking ports while civil protests march on the streets.
Should the review be held, its findings may include a series of failings, the most significant of which was to not address the core issue at the outset. The permit system may have got the Commission off their back, but it failed to address the heart of the issue; to change industry behaviour. This requires incentives and takes years and years of engagement and monitoring to achieve, little of which was effectively employed. The current government now finds itself having to react suddenly to court rulings and has lost the time its predecessors wasted to address the core issue. The government has been backed into a corner by its predecessors. It seems to feel no alternative to the draconian measures it is implementing. That position may indicate stronger international forces controlling their policies.
Hopefully some appeasement can be sought from the courts. The long ignored but essential slow change in industry behaviour is the solution. It will take many years. Compromises are required on all sides, with sufficient time for the implementation of better industry practice and non-threatening mitigations to protect the sensitive ecosystem zones. This is a decades long failure by successive Dutch governments to address an issue to which they committed themselves thirty years ago.
The Geopolitics of Food
The Dutch farmers are not alone in battling the whims or mismanagement of government. Farmer protests against increasing fuel and fertilizer costs have been widespread across southern Europe including Spain, Italy and Greece. Similar pressures of increases in agricultural supply costs are being felt in the USA's mid-west. Their trade press have been warning about fertilizer cost increases for well over a year.
Rises in fuel costs impact farmers twice, first for the fuel and secondly for fertilizer which is mostly produced from oil. Supply chain disruptions largely caused by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have caused universal price rises. In Europe, the aggressive sanctions policies set upon Russia following her "Special Military Operation" have dramatically raised prices for gas and oil beyond the existing rises caused by supply disruptions. The combination has created an economic storm for farmers. While prices are rising as inflation soars to the highest level in decades, farmers are losing money. The Dutch farmers are being doubly attacked by their government from its economic policies and the new NOx emissions policies.
Western media reports that Ukraine's wheat crop cannot be exported because of Russian aggression are a falsehood. The truth is that sea mines laid by Ukraine are blocking shipping transit. Russia has established cleared sea lanes and offered a commitment to support commercial vessels to use these cleared lanes in international waters on the Black Sea. The sea mines laid by Ukraine in Ukraine’s territorial waters are the blockade.
A not too well coordinated but broad attack against world food supply appears to be under way. The market reforms forced upon developing countries by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) through the 1970’s to 1990’s to abandon their own food production and invest in export foods, often fruits, is an earlier effort in obtaining control over global food supply. Control over key commodities including oil and food provide influence for organisations wishing for geopolitical power.
Institutions like the IMF are under threat from a growing alliance of nations choosing to take the less harsh offers from Chinese infrastructure investment banks. Other western aligned organisations like the World Economic Forum have their own agendas.
While the conflict in The Netherlands is largely between environmental protection and the IAH farmers, fueled by poor government management of the long brewing crisis, it serves as a microcosm of a larger conflict over control of global food production and supply.
Governments would be well advised to remember the dangerous phrase which symbolized the beginning of the French Revolution:
Let them eat cake.
Farmer protests have spread to Germany and Poland. Thus, protests for varying reasons have occurred in the last few months in Spain, Italy, Greece, The Netherlands, Germany and Poland at least. The common denominator are the economic conditions with rises in fuel and fertilizer felt across the board.
Dutch farmers protest against green reforms, Sofia Barbarani, Yahoo! News, 2022-07-04
Dutch farmers protest by blocking supermarket distribution centres, Toby Sterling, Reuters, 2022-07-04
Farmers’ blockades ‘will cost supermarkets tens of millions’, no author listed, DutchNews.nl, 2022-07-06
Dutch farmers aggressively protest plans to dramatically reduce livestock numbers, Eric Barker, Beef Central, 2022-07-06
Dutch farmers protest gov’s plan to curb nitrogen emissions, Matthew Wedzerai, Pig Progress, 2022-07-06
Dutch Farmers Protest As Government Tries To Slaughter 30% Of Their Livestock To Meet Climate Goals. UPDATE: Secret Police Infiltrate. Resistance Intensifies, Jacob M. Thompson, The WinePress, 2022-07-06
Dutch Farmers Protest Netherlands’ National Program to Reduce Nitrogen Emissions: ‘We Are Food Producers, Not Pollution Producers’, Micky Wootten, CNSNews, 2022-07-05
The Dutch nitrogen crisis, Kajsa Pira, Acid News, 2019-12-04
Council Directive 92/43/EEC, European Economic Community, 1992-05-21
What’s all the fuss about nitrogen in the Netherlands?, Robin Pascoe, DutchNews.nl, 2022-06-05
Netherlands, Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), data for 2020
As West blames Moscow for ‘food crisis’, ships sail from Mariupol with Moscow’s help while Ukraine holds vessels in its ports, Eva K. Bartlett, In Gaza (her newsletter), 2022-07-01
The Netherlands Is On Fire, Gonzalo Lira, his (new) youtube channel, 2022-07-05
Note: Ignore the rant section about “nitrogen”. Mr. Lira knows not of which he speaks. The problem is not nitrogen, but nitrogen oxides as described above.
Dutch Farmers Spray Manure On Government Buildings In Protest, Jimmy Dore, The Jimmy Dore Show, 2022-07-07
Why are farmers in the Netherlands angry? | Inside Story, Al Jazeera, their youtube channel, 2022-07-04
Note: this story is also “blocked” by youtube. Download rates move from 50, down through 40 and 30 to land in the range of 20 KB/s, making the download time over twice the length of the news publication.
Queen - Under Pressure (Official Video), Under Pressure (a 1981 single later included in their 1982 album “Hot Space”), Queen’s Official youtube channel, uploaded 2008-09-09
In honor of those new media artists remixing old songs with current news videos for new purposes. Queen’s legacy continues: a song with masterful singers and musicians. With no disrespect to Queen’s distributors, the video adds little to the track.
I suggest just listening.
If you like what you read here, you can please the author by sharing it.
Do Not Subscribe: This blog does not issue "notifications" via Substack. Use RSS. The URL is the obvious: https://yesxorno.substack.com/feed .
Following @YesXorNo1 on Twitter is the next best alert mechanism.
Copyright and Licensing
This work is copyright to the blog's author with CC BY-SA 4.0 licensing. Have fun, reuse, remix etc. but give credit and place no further restrictions. Lets build culture.