The companies in Quote 500 families are fueling the farmers’ protest

The Hague is a world of followers and individuals with courage. It was the same this week, though the contrast is not often that sharp.

At the end of last week, Nitrogen Minister Christianne van der Wal (VVD) presented nitrogen plans, which had already been alluded to three years ago. In the evening, the tractors stood by her door. The next day, the VVD Congress turned against her. Sunday morning, she continued to defend her plans at the WNL.

Farmers are angry, their own party angry, colleagues with pale faces – and yet persevere.

But it remained The Hague: two days later there were still enough followers on their feet. After the VVD members voted against, the CDA faction began to falter. CU lacked elements in the plans.

At D66, it was thought that the opposition was not much – not one coalition faction contested the goals – but one could also think: If three coalition parties meet the angry farmers after only four days, no one knows what it will be like in four months.

Especially now that the VVD is showing traits that we saw earlier in the PvdA and CDA: reduced popularity of the Prime Minister, rebellion in the party.

This makes the nitrogen dossier a crucial issue in our time: high political tension, reorganization of public space and – it is often forgotten – a confrontation between private large companies and the government.

For here, not only the interests of farmers and their tractors are at stake, but also relatively unknown Quote 500 companies, which are prepared, supported by some MEPs, to fight against the impending loss of turnover.

And by the way, never had trouble collecting grants from the same government.

Minister Henk Staghouwer (Agriculture, CU) had been sitting for less than three months when he had a meeting with Jan Anker on 25 March. Jan Anker is head of Royal A-ware, a dairy giant (last year had a turnover of 2.2 billion euros, profit 51 million) with dozens of subsidiaries in cheeses, cream, yoghurt, etc.

Royal A-wares’ equity amounted to 120 million euros in 2020, bringing Jan Anker to 500.

A-ware is also active in the nitrogen debate with two other agricultural giants annexing family businesses: soft on the relationship in The Hague, hard on the content. They are the animal feed giant Royal De Heus (turnover in 2020: 3.2 billion, profit 125 million), whose owner, the De Heus family, is the fifth richest family in the country according to Quote with a net worth of 1.4 billion euros. And VanDrie Group (2020: revenue 2.3 billion; profit 75 million), a global player in calf fattening. The Van Drie family’s equity is estimated at 1.2 billion euros.

For these agricultural giants, a smaller livestock population almost certainly means a drop in revenue. De Heus wanted to sell smaller animal feed. Van Drie would slaughter fewer fattening calves. For the dairy giant Royal A-ware, the company has recently expanded its production capacity (with 1.5 billion liters of milk in Heerenveen) and increased its dependence on milk producers: The company is looking for farmers.

In this way, these three each have sufficient motivation to fight nitrogen policy. Private self-interest versus national nature interest.

Their PR is sometimes sophisticated, sometimes confrontational. People need to be made aware that without agriculture they have no food. An old idea from a now famous politician. In 2017, the company magazine organized forward van De Heus held a conversation about the image of the sector, where Caroline van der Plas (then from the pig breeders’ association NVV) launched the approach: “We make your food.”

The three also want to soften the image of the farmer. In the spring, RTL4 broadcast the series Who does not know the farmer where Dutch celebrities ‘discover’ that ‘farmers, animals and sustainability’ are intertwined. The series was sponsored by A-ware, De Heus and VanDrie. The action group Agractie, which organizes next week’s farmer protest, replied enthusiastically.

But the three also launched another ambition in the past: Shortly after the coalition agreement with the nitrogen plans came out, it was announced that they would support the Agri Fakta Foundation financially.

Agri Facts is sometimes referred to as ‘De Twijfelbrigade’ by opponents in The Hague. Shortly after the outbreak of the nitrogen crisis in 2019, the foundation made a name for itself with its own extensive research, commissioned by Mesdag Dairy Fund, where agriculture’s contribution to the nitrogen crisis was subsequently incorrectly presented. And this year, Agri Fakta threatened Tjeerd de Groot (D66) with legal action after a critical statement about the fund.

That’s the hard side of resistance: Stimulating doubt, tackling critics. Jan Anker from A-ware started in the autumn of 2019 in FD already about uncertain calculations and measurements: “As long as there is a discussion about numbers, standards and measurement method (-), we should not let companies disappear.” Farm: “I have (-) no understanding of nitrogen and carbon dioxide, but the question is whether it actually comes from the cows.”

A-ware, De Heus and VanDrie turned their heads against the nitrogen plans this week with their own statements. A-ware called the acquisition of farmers “unnecessary and unacceptable”. De Heus, whose lobbyist has previously worked for the VVD group: “We support the announced actions.” VanDrie: “We are right next to the farmer!”

Where is all this paradoxical: In the database for Agri & Foods top sector of Economic Affairs and in other databases you can find several partially subsidized projects (sustainable dairy chain, sustainable meat, safe food, optimal baby food, control of food waste, etc.) where the same companies have the last ten years with others.

I emailed them about it. Only animal feed De Heus responded effectively: Participation in public-private projects does not deprive a company of the right to ‘stand up for your interests’.

VanDrie remained silent. While I found the vast majority of projects and schemes that are beneficial to this business. In 2014, for example, due to its “important role in the calf sector”, the company was invited to a meeting with then-State Secretary Sharon Dijksma (Agriculture) after the abolition of the European slaughter premium for fattening calves. As compensation, Dijksma promised the sector a sustainability grant of 60 million euros in six years, she wrote to the Folketing, and according to those involved, it was clear that it benefited VanDrie in particular.

And when the LTO at the end of 2021 reported that 30 million of this had not been paid out, which the ministry is fighting against, another aspect of the new agriculture was seen: Caroline van der Plas (BBB) ​​asked parliamentary questions.

And the question is now: should politics be governed by this complex of mega-corporations and agrarian politicians?

It would be a special result of the new culture of government for all, especially coalition parties. Coalition parties then precisely exhibit the unmanageable behaviors that led to previously criticized habits such as tight coalition agreements, coalition consultations, and the sensitization of MPs.

Meanwhile, the order is weaker than ever. If VVD collapses – no longer unthinkable – the formation of a new cabinet will no longer be a matter of course in the light of fragmentation. It’s also at stake.

For example, the nitrogen policy confronts The Hague with elementary choices. Between the public interest and that of the mega-powers. Between courage and mini-politics. Between governance and something that is beginning to look like the great klaadadatsch perilous.

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