Why Dutch farmers go too far with their protests
As a Dutch farmer’s son, it is hard for me to be proud, now that protesting tractor-terrorists are making themselves completely ridiculous. They attack our democratic system and are rallying behind a failed agricultural system of which they themselves are the victims. But also nature, the environment, and even the food supply in developing countries.
— Lees dit verhaal in het Nederlands —
I wanted to keep quiet. As a farmer’s son, I only get into arguments with friends and family with my opinion, although I think there are far too few farmers. I wanted to keep quiet because I do understand the farmers and sympathize with them now that our minister of Nature and Nitrogen (no joke!) is totally freaking out. And I would have liked to keep quiet because we’ve been repeating ourselves for decades and because we’ve been foreseeing the current crisis all that time.
I wanted to keep quiet about this group of farmers who are questioning science and get involved with wackos who deny the existence of COVID and other truth-deniers. And about the far too small group of farmers who distance themselves from this. About the farmer extremists who personally threaten politicians, drive their tractors into the police, turn the country upside down and destroy things because only a small group of farmers are involved. Because yes: there are also very nice protest actions that hardly receive any attention. Such as children who go to school en masse with their pedal tractor. Or farmers on the island Texel who hand out free ice creams.
But there are also major abuses in this farmers’ struggle for which no attention is paid. So two of those farmer warriors came to intimidate my best friend with their tractors. They came to see him at home. At home, where he mainly has to rest because of serious heart problems. And only because he expressed his opinion on Facebook.
So I will no longer remain silent about the hardened farmers’ heads in which there is no more room for their own, so much praised ‘farmers wit’. A farmers wit that has been completely calcified by the communication of the agri-mafia, who butters up the those farmers and makes them believe in this agricultural system that exhausts and exploits everything and everyone. Sometimes I think that farmers have been massively affected by calcification.
I may play it a bit hard, but if farmers really think they can achieve something with their brute tour de force, then I won’t stand by and watch. I am also a farmer’s son! And I’m angry too! I am angry because my farmers’ pride has taken a beating in recent years and I’m furious at what they are trying to do to my friend and to free speech. And I’m angry because now shame is striking me.
I’m ashamed of the farmers who allow their farming wit to be infected by the agro-communication of Rabobank, Wageningen University, FrieslandCampina, De Heus, BASF, and all other multinational customers and suppliers and supermarket concerns and so on.
“We have the same interest as the farmers”, those agri-mafia shouts. “Because when farmers are doing well, we are doing well.” And farmers swallow it like a sweet pie, knowing that the opposite is also true: “If we exploit and marginalize farmers, we might be doing much better.” But no, farmers are massively tricked by their Big Friends who trap them in a web of high cost prices that lead to the highest yields but also pitifully low yield prices.
Low selling prices, which in turn benefits the supermarket. The supermarket who keeps consumer prices high in order to earn money at the expense of the farmer. After all, everything revolves around power and the small farmer has no power at all. Coca-Cola has power. This company puts pressure on the supermarket and demands the most beautiful place on the shelf, while the supermarket is hardly allowed to ask for a margin. The supermarket may be happy with Coca-Cola. Because without the fancy bottles filled with cheaply produced sugar water, the customer will stay away. The supermarket is forced to go somewhere else where he can use its power. So he goes to the farmer who has been working like a dog and needed to invest in stables, land, feed, and animals.
The farmer looks at it and doesn’t even flinch. This is the market and the market has to do its job. That is one of the many dogmas that they get talked into by their Great Friends, such as Rabobank, which has largely caused the current misery. The hypocritical farmers’ friend Wiebe Draijer, CEO of Rabobank, lamented in the biggest Dutch newspaper that the government pays too little attention to the personal suffering and unrest among farmers in the current nitrogen approach.
But if anyone is to blame for the farmers’ suffering, it is Rabobank in the first place. This farmers’ suffering is in the first place caused by the enormous overproduction. And this is not only due to government subsidies but is also largely due to the mortgages and loans for the farms and their expensive machines. Rabobank still has 30 billion in loans outstanding with 35,000 Dutch farmers. Worldwide, it is even more than 105 billion.
If a farmer wants to renovate his outdated stables, or he wants to grow his business, he has to invest in an air washer – something which is mandatory to fulfill climate rules, but which he cannot earn back – he usually only receives a loan from Rabobank if such an investment is accompanied by an expansion of the farm. That’s Rabobank.
Rabobank is the bank that finances the cultivation of cheap soy in the Amazon, at the expense of primary forests and the indigenous population. Cheap soy that is fed to our livestock. Livestock that provides us a lot of export currency, but also manure surpluses. And it’s those surpluses that have led to the current nitrogen problem, among other things. This is how Rabobank lives up to its name: after all, Rabo means robbery in, among other things, Basque.
In short, Draijer from Rabobank is the last person to moan about farmers’ suffering. But he does have a point. Climate rules are postponed for too long. Now the judge declared our government has to act, they shoot like a stormtrooper at the farmers. The government, however, has always worked together with Rabobank in the dance macabre called Scaling Up, which resulted in an exodus of the countryside.
Every day, six to seven farmers quit. Farmers rarely complain about this, because it is a logical consequence of the increase in scale, they know, buttered up by the agri-mafia. Farms simply have to grow, because: ‘a standstill means going backward’. This, again, is nonsense, because a standstill is not going forward and not going backward. Standstill is standstill and there is nothing wrong with that. But the more often the dogma is repeated, the truer it becomes and the harder the race to the bottom is driven. In the end, the dogma goes, the best entrepreneurs will survive.
But that too is rubbish. Because: who is the best farmer? The one who can earn an income with 15 hectares, or the farmer who needs 300 hectares for this? And are you really such a great farmer when you can only breed pigs or only milk cows? And was your grandfather such a lousy peasant? Because he wasn’t specialized, something that was needed so much in the battle of scaling up and efficiency? With his couple of cows, plus a few pigs, plus chickens, plus arable farming, plus horticulture? No, he did not study at Wageningen UR indeed. But he knew better than you how those different crops and animals complemented each other and how to spread his risks!
Butter mountains and milk lakes
Grandfather was someone who was born before the Second World War. After the Dutch famine of 1945, the motto was: ‘No more hunger. And the farmer Sicco Mansholt was appointed as agriculture minister. He worked on import duties and export subsidies. He was allowed to roll out this policy of market protection at a European level. His goal was not only to prevent our country from hunger but also to increase exports. His policy was very successful because there came food in abundance. It even led to butter mountains and milk lakes. Much to his own regret. But he repented too late when he was old and retired.
The government, however, did not repent, because it only had an eye for economic success. The adage was: ’the market must do its job’. So the import tariffs were phased out. Farmers had to produce for the world market. However, overproduction keeps food prices low. And to keep those food prices low, agricultural subsidies were allowed to remain.
So the market needs to do its job, but the free market is a myth. The farmer receives support for his overproduction, which puts pressure on selling prices, but at the same time, he is at the mercy of the world market where he has to compete with his colleagues in Eastern Europe or anywhere else in the world, who are faced with less cost-increasing rules and mostly produce on much cheaper land.
In this way, the exodus from rural areas goes on and on, although this is hardly noticeable because the increase in scale continues. Six to seven farmers per day leave their farm behind, but the overproduction goes on because other farmers, mainly large-scale buyers who no longer have anything to do with a farm, buy the companies and put a manager on them.
The overproduction of manure, therefore, does not decline, despite all the cost-increasing measures of manure separators and manure factories. In short: the policy has gotten out of hand extremely. And now, nitrogen production has increased so much that we never will reach the climate goals and the judge had to blow the whistle on our government.
That things need to change may be clear by now. But as long as we have Mark Rutte as our prime minister, this may only be a dream. The Rutte cabinet conducts politics in a completely Ruttian way, which infected the whole governance culture. Rutte suffers from a very bad memory. But not only Rutte, many of the politicians in his cabinet lie and cheat.
Many researchers take the same diagnosis: tunnel vision, power politics, and immoral official language. There is no attention to the human aspect. Many people are suffering from the ill Ruttian way of politics. In 2016 almost a hundred people died from Q-fever, caused by goats. Hundreds of people suffered from serious health problems. All they received from prime minister Rutte were apologies. In the province of Groningen, the mining of gas leads to earthquakes that destroy houses. Already for decades, citizens are fighting for compensation. And then there is this tax rebate controversy in which tens of thousands of Dutch parents were incorrectly accused of fraud and unjustly ordered to pay back thousands of euros in historic childcare benefits by the Dutch tax office.
And now we are blessed with a nitrogen minister who, as rudely as possible, throws a nitrogen map on the table, which lacks any logic but where every farmer can see exactly how much nitrogen he has to decrease, or rather: how many of his animals he has to get rid of.
Farmers get the blame
We may be used to this kind of politics by now after the twelve years of Mark Rutte. But there is no denying that there is a nitrogen surplus, with which we never reach the climate goals.
Yes, of course, it can be denied. As COVID can be denied. You see how people are dying and suffering, but COVID is a concoction. You can see that almost nowhere in the world there are so many animals packed together as in the Netherlands. But there is no way that their manure and air emissions can cause any problem.
In fact: as early as 1970, when Mansholt was the first European Commissioner of Agriculture, there were warnings about manure surpluses.
Farmers always get the blame. At the moment they cause nitrogen surpluses. There are also problems regarding water quality, but farmers will protest about that another time. And after that, farmers can go up on the barricades again because chemical pesticides will be taken away from them. The European Union wants them to be halved by 2030.
Farmers cause hunger
Farmers always get the blame. For poor water quality, for the loss of insects, air pollution, stench and fine dust, for Q-fever, mega-stables that affect the appearance of the countryside, and maybe I forget something. Oh yes: world hunger. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
It’s unjust, farmers say, that they are to be blamed for everything. And they are right. Because it is not the farmer who is to blame for this all-embracing agricultural crisis, it’s the system. During their protests, farmers display truisms like: ‘No farmers no food!’ That’s right. There’s no way we can deny the cartloads of potatoes and sugar beets that farmers collect from their land in autumn. Just like the trucks full of pigs and the export figures: The Netherlands could add 104.7 billion euros to the trade balance, thanks to the export of Dutch agricultural products. This makes the Netherlands, after the USA, the largest exporter of agricultural products in the world.
Farmers don’t just provide food, they create huge surpluses. And that brings us to the statement: ‘Farmers cause hunger’. Because the surpluses end up on the world market at dumping prices, which means that for example shiploads of milk powder and poultry meat are dumped on the market in countries such as Nigeria or Ghana. Farmers in those countries cannot build up a market, because they can’t compete with our subsidized surpluses. Consumers depend on these cheap food flows, which only becomes a problem if the supply unexpectedly stops. With crop failures in the West or with war, as in Ukraine.
I realize: it goes too far to accuse the Dutch farmer who produces our bread against an uncertain and often low income for causing hunger elsewhere in the world. Nor is it the farmer who is causing this, it is the agricultural system. It’s the policy that makes European farmers depend on subsidies. The EU spends €42 billion of our tax money every year to provide farmers an unfair advantage on the global market.
Farmers are not to blame for this. But farmers who are now going on the barricades do agree with this policy! And they are plainly wrong if they protest when their overproduction is at risk, but not when quotas are cut which were supposed to protect their market.
It’s about time for another government. A government that stops letting crises take their course and only tries to put out fires in a panic reaction at the end. It’s about time for a different policy. A policy that does not put the market first, but people and the environment. Citizens, farmers, and nature on which everyone depends.
Farmers deserve an integrated policy. So that they can produce without surpluses that not only violate nature but also the selling prices of agricultural products on the world market. Farmers worldwide are faced with a lack of successors, not only in the Netherlands. The average farmer on this planet is 60. The question: ‘Why does no one want to be a farmer anymore?’ is usually answered in the media with: ‘because there is no successor’. But why is there no successor? Because there is no perspective. And perspective, that’s what the farmers are calling for right now.
But there is no perspective because prices have been too low for years. They are too low and they fluctuate. Farmers too often supply their products for less money than the production cost. But this really is just an evil intent of the dance macabre of the agri-mafia. It’s them who do benefit from it: the banks, the agri-multinationals, and the supermarkets. It’s hard to make money in agriculture, it’s easy making money from agriculture.
Since conventional farmers can’t make money on the yield side, they have to make it on the cost side. And the common way to cut costs is to increase production. If you have a big tractor, work some more ground with it. And if you build a stable, build a stable for enough animals. In that case, a full bulk truck can come to deliver feed. That’s cheaper for the feed manufacturer than driving past twenty farmers with one load.
A government that wants small-scale farmers to be able to earn an income, while producing a fair product, with care for their environment and nature, needs to implement an integrated policy that protects farmers against the vagaries of the market, which is now far from free.
So make sure they earn an income by using fewer chemicals. And do not use innovations solely for economic purposes. Agricultural policy has always focused on supporting innovations that gave Dutch farmers a head start on the world market.
Pressing question: why are organic methods not innovations? Why does Wageningen University do so absurdly little research on agroecological agricultural systems? The knowledge about the importance of soil fungi for plant growth is very recent. Why is so little attention paid to these kinds of innovations?
Pressing answer: because it jeopardizes the sale of chemical pesticides. It would be a fine mess if farmers started working with nature instead of fighting against nature. In that case, those manufacturers of ‘crop protection products are screwed.
And also consumers deserve a fair product. A healthy product that is produced in a fair way with respect for nature. If you ask citizens, they are willing to pay more if their money is well spent. 70 percent of citizens want to pay more for meat, for the sake of the environment. But when he is in the store, only 37 percent of the consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly food products.
Governments are in this world to protect their citizens. That’s what we pay them for. But governments listen to the agri-mafia and agree with the motto: ’the market must do its job’. The consumer is therefore served with a cheap banger for which the farmer had to work like a dog and had to make concessions on animal welfare, nature, the environment, and working conditions.
The consumer is served cheap food, while the citizen is left behind. This is not ’the market doing its job’, this is well-thought-out government policy. The government is dancing along with the agri-mafia and allows the market to push down food prices because then they don’t have to practice a fair income policy. High food prices are seldomly the problem, the issue is that citizens have too little money to pay a fair price for a fair product.
And shamelessly our government sends the poor paupers to the soup kitchen.
Both farmers and citizens deserve a fair policy. But also nature, the environment, and public health. At the moment, farmers are forced to pollute nature with chemical agents for producing a cheap products. Pollution of air, soil, and water is not calculated. The costs of repairing the damage are for other parties. For example, for the water treatment plant and health insurance.
March 23, 1971
An integrated agricultural policy is possible. But we do need a government that does not listen to the business community, but in the first place to their citizens.
It’s possible. An integrated agricultural policy is possible, although it will lead to violent protests. Especially from the largest farmers who make the most profit and who are supported by the agri-mafia of multinationals, banks, supermarkets, and Wageningen UR and who fear they are not able to pay off their overinvestments.
But also remember: Mansholt’s policy, which is at the root of the current problem and which is still passionately defended, led to fierce protests. Maybe even more intense than now. On March 23, 1971, street furniture, shops, and a tram in Brussels were destroyed. Puppets presenting Mansholt were set on fire under the slogan: “Plan Mansholt: NO! Prosperous family businesses: YES!” Clashes between farmers and the gendarmerie resulted in many injuries and even one death.
But the protests didn’t do good. Mansholt went ahead with his plans and the policy still stands proudly after more than fifty years. Although at the end of his life he saw for himself what an enormous mistake he had made. I think it’s time to fix the mistake and opt for prosperous family businesses.
And now you may be wondering: shouldn’t you say something about Caroline van der Plas after such a long argument? About the lady who runs the farmers’ party that would become the second party in the Netherlands, according to the polls?
Then I say: No. I shouldn’t say anything about Caroline van der Plas. I’ve used enough harsh words already. I better keep quiet.
©Marc van der Sterren
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