Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) was issued during the Second Vatican Council. The preface of the document reads: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” What are the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties of the people in the Netherlands? What is going on in the Netherlands? Why did the farmers protest for weeks on such a scale that hundreds of tractors caused the biggest traffic jam ever in the Netherlands on October 1, 2019? Why did we see military trucks in the streets of The Hague two weeks later, preventing farmers from protesting at ‘Het Binnenhof’, the political heart of the Netherlands? What happened earlier this year, May 13, 2019, in Boxtel, where more than a hundred animal activists from the international organization ‘Meat the Victims’ occupied a pig farm in the municipality of Boxtel in North Brabant (Netherlands) for about 9 hours to draw attention to animal suffering. Farmers gathered to counter-protest and tipped cars that belonged to animal activists into a ditch. The police conducted negotiations between the animal activists and the owner of the farm for hours. What are these protests and conflicts about, and why now? Raising this question is much easier than answering it. The direct cause of the protests in October might be found in recent discussions about reducing the emission of nitrogen. In May 2019 the highest administrative court in the Netherlands ruled that government rules for granting construction permits and farming activities that emit large amounts of nitrogen were in violation of EU legislation. As a result, up to 18,000 infrastructure and construction projects have been put on hold. More recently, in September 2019, the Remkes Commission recommended that farms near nature preserves be bought out or else to be required to adopt measures to become more environmentally friendly. (Adviescollege Stikstofproblematiek 2019). The farmers were furious and went to The Hague with their tractors to protest on October 1. On September 28, the Dutch newspaper Trouw quotes Mark van den Oever, one of the protest organizers: “We feel as if we’re being put in the dunces’ corner by city types who come and tell us how things should be done in the country.” This ‘city type’ can appear in many forms: the activist, the politician and the journalist. Van den Over adds that farmers should not be blamed for the nitrogen issue.
But it is not the nitrogen issue alone that is at stake in the agricultural sector. A year earlier, in September 2018, Carola Schouten, the Dutch Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, stated that farming, horticulture and fisheries in the Netherlands are characterized by low-cost production and that there is an emphasis on cutting costs and increasing production, resulting in upscaling. The Minister argued that this production method has a price and leads to substantial imbalances or negative externalities – as when in an exchange the action of an agent negatively affects others not (completely) represented in the exchange – as it is called in economics. She highlights the following two imbalances. First, cost reductions and production increases result in small and sometimes even negative margins, which makes the sector economically vulnerable. This leads to substantial uncertainty for actors in that sector. Second, this has come at the expense of biodiversity, the environment, the climate, the quality of the drinking water, and the attractiveness of the landscape.
According to Schouten, these imbalances provide an argument for making a transition to circular agriculture. She states that the entire supply chain, the government, and consumers have a role to play in this transition. To put it in the words of the Raad voor de leefomgeving en infrastructuur: “The inescapable need to adapt our food system provides an excellent opportunity to unite farmers, the food processing industry, the retail sector and consumers in a unique coalition for sustainable and healthy food.” A key question, however, is how cooperation in the transition to a circular agriculture can be stimulated, especially given the current tendency toward polarization as seen above.
In an expert paper written for the Commission on Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality of the Dutch Lower House, Katrien Termeer, Professor of Public Administration and Policy (Wageningen University), argues that in there have been several initiatives in recent decades toward transition in the agricultural sector, such as reducing lifestock, the tension between consumer-citizen, and the weak position of the farmer in the chain. According to Termeer, these earlier initiatives all started with high ambitions and a lot of energy and then ran up against opposition and quietly died due to the presence of taboos strongly held convictions that are hard to change and barely subject to discussion. She states that, for a real transition, it is necessary to face these taboos and to talk about them.
In the next section I explore – in a maybe somewhat unexpected manner – how the individual and social needs can be supported to create some interaction between the several stakeholders in the agricultural sector in the Netherlands.