They are defending a globalised and hyper-intensive form of agriculture
Moving on from Covid, the conspiratorial wing of the populist Right has a new cause célèbre on which to hang its fears of global governance and the Great Reset purportedly being plotted by Klaus Schwab from his Alpine lair. This time, it’s Dutch farmers, whose protests against their government’s plans to force them to curb their use of nitrogen-based fertilisers and lower the polluted runoff from their farms has seen them lauded by Right-wing commentators across the Anglosphere as some form of modern peasants’ revolt.
As a recent UnHerd explainer made clear, the Dutch government may have handled the process badly, but the problems are clear enough: the Netherlands’ hyper-intensive form of agriculture is ecologically untenable, severely harming the tiny country’s biodiversity and locking the country’s agricultural sector into a system of overproduction of livestock for export. This entails dangerously low profit margins for farmers themselves, and a system reliant on imports of chemical fertilisers.
Partly as a result of the country’s painful experience of famine during the Second World War, Dutch agriculture has long pursued maximum efficiency, making the Netherlands a food exporting powerhouse second only to the vastly larger United States, but locking farmers into a cycle of dependency on globalised agribusinesses. All of the UK’s problems with intensive farming practices that have lowered farmers’ incomes while harming animal welfare and polluting Britain’s landscape are displayed to a significantly heightened degree in the Netherlands. The country’s food production system relies on what are essentially green factories or giant warehouses for livestock, packing animals together four times more densely than in the UK, rather than the small family farms many outside supporters seem to imagine.
The current system in the Netherlands is simply unsustainable, but the Dutch government’s abrupt approach to solving the problem has turned it into a political crisis. As the Dutch spokesperson for the World Wildlife Fund, Natasja Oerlemans observes, the problems now are “the result of 30 years of inaction, despite all of the scientific reports and warnings”. “We as a society have allowed this broken food system to happen,” she added, “and we are responsible for providing farmers alternatives”.
As the Guardian noted last year, while the Dutch government’s proposals include paying off farmers to reduce production or leave the industry, it also includes billions of Euros of aid designed towards “helping others transition to more extensive (as opposed to intensive) methods of farming, with fewer animals and a bigger area of land”.
The goal of the Dutch government’s proposals is aimed to bring Dutch farming closer in line to British farming, where herds of cows roam freely on wide pastures, and away from the American agribusiness model, where cattle live on feedlots eating imported grain. However badly the transition has been handled — and Dutch farmers should be better supported in their shift to a more sustainable model — this goal is, in itself, a welcome shift towards a better functioning food model. Excitable conservatives of a conspiratorial bent should think carefully about which they prefer: a world of small farms producing high-quality food while shepherding the natural environment, or the continuation of a fragile, globalised food system in hock to giant corporations.