Back Forty: Real problems, fake news, and consequences for EU climate policy

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Farmers protest Dutch nitrogen policy on June 22, 2022 in Arnhem, Netherlands. Photo by Jeroen Meuwsen/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images.

By Paul Tullis

The Netherlands is the most densely populated country in Europe (not counting the tiny city-states like Monaco and San Marino). It is also the most densely populated country in Europe for cattle (3.8 million in 2020), pigs (11.9 million), and chickens (90.2 million), all crowded into an area one quarter the size of England. And it is the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural products by value. All the humans, all the animals the humans are raising for food, and all the extremely lucrative tulips the country raises don’t leave much room for nature. So beginning in 1992, when the Netherlands set aside 2,129 of its 13,086 square miles as part of the Natura 2000 network of protected areas across the 27 member states, something had to give.

What gave is political stability. In November 2023, for the first time, a far-right party, the PVV of Geert Wilders — a one-issue politician whose issue is hating Muslims — led in elections for the Dutch parliament. The results should not be over-interpreted — parties of the left and center won 63 percent of the vote to the right’s 37 percent — but the top vote-getter gets to lead coalition talks.

As in U.S. presidential elections dating to at least 2000, results broke largely along an urban-rural divide. In the Netherlands in 2023, this was a new development. Even many urban Dutch are only a generation or two removed from agrarian roots and hold tender memories of riding their grandfather’s tractor on weekends growing up. Train stations placed at the edges of newly expanding cities help urbanites easily maintain connections to the nearby countryside (sprawl here is virtually nonexistent). The effect has been relative cohesion among country mice and city mice, but now maybe not so much.

The recent tilt to Wilders can be viewed as a direct result of the government’s botched response to the environmental consequences of intensive livestock farming, a housing crunch, and the masterfully cynical hand-waving that Wilders and his fellow travelers on the far right performed over the last few years to link the two issues and blame it all on immigrants from Muslim countries.

In 2019, the Netherlands’ highest court ruled that its system for handing out permits to emit nitrogen, which can be a pollutant, was ineffective at protecting the Dutch Natura 2000 (N2K) areas and so needed to end. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas whose production by humans has increased sixfold since 1940, almost entirely from the burning of fossil fuels; the use of ammonia-based fertilizers; and feeding livestock concentrated protein instead of grass. 

Nitrogen compounds also affect plants and wildlife directly; flora evolved to absorb the amount of nitrogen that has existed in the atmosphere for eons. Some can handle more; most can’t. Chain reactions initiate: For example, too much nitrogen in the soil depletes calcium, so snails can’t form shells and birds that rely on the snails for their own calcium fledge with weakened bones. Nitrogen that runs off farm fields can generate dead zones in lakes, rivers, and oceans. 

A task force was formed to figure out what to do in the wake of the court’s ruling, and later that year it declared the country would need to take “drastic measures” to reduce nitrogen emissions. Because nitrogen from farms is the leading source of the gas deposited on N2K areas, this would need to include buying out and shutting down farms.

Farmers freaked out. In protest, they drove tractors to The Hague, the seat of government, dumped manure on highways, rammed through the doors of a provincial council, carried burning torches to the home of the Minister of Finance, and more. Covid put a damper on much of this, but by the summer of 2022, they were back at it.

The timing was not a coincidence. Far-right parties had leveraged some people’s annoyance with the (relatively mild) restrictions imposed during the pandemic to gain supporters, saying it was all a big conspiracy to rob people of their freedoms, vaccines were a hoax, and something something George Soros. But as the vaccines demonstrated their effectiveness and restrictions were lifted, the far right needed a new drum to beat. The government had since introduced a buyout plan for farms with high emissions near N2K areas that was strictly voluntary (though farmers who needed to renew their permits would be required to dramatically reduce their nitrogen emissions). The far right quickly mischaracterized the plan as forced buyouts. 

The right also found a way to lay the farmers’ woes at the feet of immigrants. News reports of overcrowding at the facility that received asylum seekers were frequent during this time. The center-right government of Mark Rutte had shuttered all the other facilities in the hope that it would discourage newcomers. An impression developed of an unmanageable wave of Africans and Middle Easterners hitting the country just as a housing crunch was sending prices soaring (entirely not due to migration, according to a UN special rapporteur). Though the number of asylum seekers was rising, they were still just 13 percent of the number of immigrants from the Soviet Union and Europe and 8 percent of the Netherland’s total immigrant population. The greatest increase in migration of all forms was among Europeans, more than half of whom come to work and go to school. The buyout plan, the nationalists maintained, was really about The Hague wanting to close Dutch farms so it could replace them with apartment buildings full of Arabs and Blacks. 

These viewpoints are further reflected in Nitrogen 2000: The Dutch Farmers’ Struggle, a recent “documentary” directed by James Patrick. The filmmaker’s previous work bears the distinction of having been banned from Facebook and YouTube for containing misinformation about Covid; if you spend any time on either of these platforms, you know this is a very high bar.

The film, which you can watch on YouTube, is purely propaganda. An interviewer can be seen wearing a symbol of the farmer protests, and Patrick interviews only a single person who holds a view contrary to the idea that the nitrogen policy is a conspiracy driven by the Club of Rome. His sole environmental expert has published on nitrogen deposition only in marine environments. Qualified scientists who actually study nitrogen’s effects on plants are only a phone call away, but they don’t share the bias of Patrick or his other interviewees — who include a former member of an anti-immigrant party and a pundit whose X (formerly Twitter) posts are rife with anti-Islam fervor. 

None of these affiliations is disclosed, and interviewees are given copious opportunities to push mis- and disinformation. “They need to build houses, factories, highways, and to do that they need to get farmers’ land as cheap as possible,” says the vice president of the Farmers Defense Force, a group formed in response to the task force’s report that was behind some of the most violent protest actions. That’s the sort of irrefutable non sequitur that populists are brilliant at purveying; the statement can’t be effectively rebutted because it doesn’t contain a disprovable assertion of fact.

Still, the film contains no shortage of disprovable assertions of fact, like “Dutch cattle farmers own 70 percent of Holland” (the entire agriculture sector uses 54 percent of Dutch land) and “the government is seeking to forcibly buy 50 percent of farms” (only about 18 percent were eligible for a buyout). It asks, “Is nitrogen really bad for nature?” pointing out in a graphic that “78 percent of what we breath [sic] is nitrogen.” Well, sure, but if you’re trying to bake bread and you mess up the proportions, it won’t rise. 

As we’ve seen in the U.S., it’s difficult for voters to make reasonable decisions when pummeled with such misinformation, and the combination of real problems and fake news was too much for a third of Dutch voters to bear. 

On May 16, the Wilders coalition released its plan for governing. There will be “no forced shrinkage of livestock” and “no forced expropriation of farms.” This is gaslighting — nobody said there would be. The buyout plan is scrapped. Going forward, nitrogen restrictions will be replaced by companies, which include smallholder “family” farms, setting their own “targets.” The whole problem will be kicked to Brussels, which is an interesting concept considering that Brussels doesn’t set policy for individual countries; it sets EU-wide policies that member states must then figure out how to implement. Which the Netherlands had already done, and Wilders is now refusing to do.

The producers of Nitrogen 2000 are no doubt ecstatic.