reading time 5 minutes
© cc photo: Matt Biddulph
Since the government announced a drastic reform of the agricultural sector to achieve a significant reduction in nitrogen emissions, the focus has been primarily on farmers and politics. You are for or against the farmers, you are for or against political decision-making. As is so often the case, the nuance is hard to find. So far, there has also been remarkably little attention paid to the citizen throughout this story, or the consumer if one prefers to speak in neoliberal jargon.
We have been addicted to cheap meat and cheap dairy products for generations. With all the consequences for the climate, animal welfare and our own health. This is not a prayer for a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, but current food production and consumption has been unsustainable for some time. However, we find it quite normal that the shelves are always filled with animal (by) products at low prices. How did this happen?
Until well into the twentieth century, Holland had a food production organized on a small scale. The agricultural sector consisted of numerous small farms that mainly produced for their own family food supply and the local market. However, population growth necessitated an expansion of the supply of agricultural products, which was further emphasized by the famine winter of 1944-1945.
After the war, the Dutch government in the form of Minister Sicco Mansholt therefore focused on modernizing agriculture. As part of the Marshall Aid, our country became acquainted with intensive livestock farming from America, which aimed to increase the scale and efficiency. The farmers got all the help from the government to switch to this new way of working. This eventually resulted in a system where the number of farms had dropped drastically, but this small number resulted in a much larger total production than before. Economic interests preceded climate and animal welfare. As a result, our country became one of the largest exporters in the world, and the Dutch population had access to cheap agricultural products.
We have forgotten that throughout history it was anything but normal to have meat everywhere and at all times. meat was for most a luxury item served only on special occasions. Add to that the fact that many of us still have a strong preference for foods with a high nutritional value and you have a recipe for obesity. Prehistoric man as a hunter was programmed to consume as much as possible to obtain high calorie food. After all, it was completely uncertain that such a meal would reappear in the short term.
The hunt for food is still with us. But unlike our ancestors, the hunt is now always successful: the supermarket’s opening hours have been extended over the last few decades, the shelves are always full, and the most caloric products are often the cheapest. And the food industry is also putting many unhealthy additives into it. The result: the western population sighs during prosperous diseases, and the animals and the climate sigh too.
In addition, we have become so accustomed to our prosperity that it becomes difficult to change course. As with meat and dairy products, we believe we have the ‘right’ to many things that are part of our current lifestyle. Because despite the fact that the real climate deniers have now been marginalized, entire tribes do not seem to find it a problem at all to take the plane for recreational purposes, as the long queues at Schiphol, which we see on the Journal every day, testify to. And no one on TV is wondering out loud if we shouldn’t try to make those queues smaller by vacationing in a different way for the time being. That’s telling.
But as I said before, just as this is not a prayer for a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, nor is this a call to radically say goodbye to our mobility or other conveniences in modern life. However, more conscious choices are needed until our mobility has undergone such a development that it has truly become more sustainable. The same goes for the food we eat. And believe me, like so many others, I struggle with it every day. Unfortunately, I am blessed with taste buds that like everything as long as it is sweet, salty or fat.
What obviously does not help with all issues concerning climate, animal welfare and public health is the wait-and-see attitude of Dutch politicians. Although the negative consequences of intensive livestock farming have been known for decades, it has been court rulings that are now forcing the government to take drastic measures. Economic interests have always been paramount. This can also be seen in other areas: Fossil fuel producers such as Shell should never be made too difficult, and KLM had to be kept afloat at all costs during the corona crisis.
In the case of farmers, a real overhaul of the agricultural sector has been postponed for far too long. Not only because of the economy, but politicians were also afraid of the farmer in the ballot box (and still are). However, farmers were always forced to make investments that would limit the release of harmful substances. This not only solves the real problem (the amount of animals), but it also put the farmers in an impossible position and it is fair to say. The investment had to be recouped, but under pressure from the big supermarket chains, who feared that consumers would not pay more (no unjustified fear), farmers had no choice but to focus on even more economies of scale with all the consequences that entailed.
What has been lacking in politics for decades is a detailed vision of the actual introduction of sustainable agriculture and also good support for farmers in this regard. When intensive livestock farming was introduced, the government was there for the farmer, so why not now?
The nitrogen problem is anything but an isolated problem. It touches the roots of our modern industrialized society. A society that for too long has taken too much into account economic interests and unbridled prosperity. And too little attention to the climate, animal welfare, public health and the negative consequences of the free market. In addition, citizens’ habituation to ever-available luxury products and the universal human quality of immediate need satisfaction.
The problems are too great to be left to politicians, farmers or citizens alone. There is a shared responsibility. Politicians will have to let go of their obsession with growth and their fear of the electorate. In the long run, farmers must take part in the reforms, but they must also be supported by the government and consumers. The latter could more often choose more sustainable quality products in the supermarket instead of just paying attention to the price.
And yes, that means no matter how hard it is, smaller amounts of meat, dairy products and eggs. If farmers notice, their entrepreneurial spirit will really be flexible enough to start producing differently if there is a clear prospect of a profitable farmer’s existence.