Agricultural Netherlands is on its hind legs due to the proposed nitrogen reduction targets. Depending on the area, farmers need to reduce their nitrogen emissions by 12 to 70 percent. For farmers, this feels unfair and the impact is huge. By interpreting the nitrogen crisis in the light of our land use and consumption patterns, it seems that current policies are inconsistent and their anger can be better understood. In addition, I still question whether it is politically sensible to reduce Dutch food production.
An often heard argument for implementing the nitrogen reduction is that Dutch agriculture is the world’s second food exporter and that it could be made smaller. After all, two thirds of Dutch milk production is consumed outside the Netherlands, writes the trade association, Dutch Dairy Organization. Pigs, eggs, potatoes and sugar are also sent abroad in comparable quantities.
For a more complete picture, however, it is important to look at the balance between land use, food production and consumption from the Netherlands. The Netherlands has 1.81 million hectares of agricultural land. That is 56 percent of all land in the Netherlands. We use 0.8 million hectares of this for our own food production and 1 million hectares for export, mainly to the European hinterland. In addition, we import beef, cereals, wine, coffee, tea, bananas, oranges and other fruits from abroad using 1.25 million hectares of agricultural land. We also import animal feed from a further 1.25 million hectares of agricultural land. Ultimately, it is intended for our own consumption.
From this perspective, the Dutch use about 2 million hectares of agricultural land for direct human production. Even if we adjust our food patterns or do not export, we will not have enough farmland to be self-sufficient. This shows that our food consumption is not in balance with our land use.
The food that the Netherlands transports and exports from its own soil makes the Netherlands a serious player in the food trade in Europe. We replace milk with wine and thus get something to drink for breakfast and dinner. When the contribution of Dutch agriculture falls in this whole, we become more dependent on others and we lose this position. From a strategic and (geo) political point of view, it therefore seems to me very unwise to reduce food production, and we should value food more, as Ingrid Jansen once argued in 2019 in NRC† Politicians in The Hague, however, do not seem to realize the importance of food. To me, this is a serious cause for concern.
Also read: Dairy farming is a drama for the environment and farmers
The current nitrogen crisis arose after the Netherlands agreed (and legally established!) That it would not emit more nitrogen than is good for our living environment. But when we interpret the nitrogen crisis in the light of our consumption pattern, it turns out that we demand too much of the soil locally and globally. Here I see an agreement with CO2†
The Dutch emit more CO per person2 than it is good for the climate. We fly around the world, buy clothes and use electricity, gas and other raw materials. All of these consumer pleasures are related to CO2equivalents that can be offset by hectares of forest. When performing this calculation, it turns out that the Dutch have an average footprint of 4.9 hectares per person. Globally, however, there are only 1.63 hectares available per. We ask for more of the earth than the earth can give us, and therefore let it hang too wide.
It is unwise to move
Food production (which according to the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency accounts for only 13 percent of our CO2emissions can be attributed) moving to other parts of the world makes no sense and is unwise. We are fooling ourselves if we wipe our streets clean and set aside 25 billion euros to make our so-called contribution to climate, environment and nature. At least when the ultimate goal of nitrogen reduction is to restart, maintain or expand other economic activities.
If we really want to limit nitrogen emissions and do something for the climate, we need to radically change our consumption patterns in the broadest sense of the word. We are not going to save the world by fooling ourselves or by treating symptoms. Left or right, we must work together. Also you as a consumer.