After polluting our soil, Dutch farmers now learn about limits to growth the hard way

You might have seen an image like the above in the news recently, about a protest farmers recently held in the Netherlands. The farmers are angry, because the government is considering forcing them to get rid of half their livestock, to reduce emissions of harmful pollutants. The farmers argue they’ve already reduced their emissions of ammonia and other nitrogen compounds by more than half compared to the early nineties.

The government is obliged by European law, to force them to reduce their emissions further. If you were to ask the average man in the street, you’ll hear the argument that the European Union should mind their own business and the farmers are our heroes because they produce our food. The reality however, is that the situation we’re in is far worse than people comprehend and the farmers are expected to reduce their emissions for perfectly valid reasons. In fact, we waited far too long with getting the problems they cause under control.

The Netherlands sees itself as a food exporting nation. We have seventeen million citizens on a tiny plot of land and yet we’re able to produce huge amounts of food, more than enough to feed ourselves. How is this possible? To start with, not every plot of soil is equal. A river delta is generally speaking an enormously fertile plot of land, where human population density is very high. With two major European rivers finding their way to the ocean through this small plot of land, it was essentially inevitable that the Netherlands would become densely populated. We’re as big a Denmark, but with three times as many people.

More importantly however, we’ve modernized agriculture. Note what we don’t really produce much of: Cereal grains, tree nuts and other products that require a lot of physical space. Dutch fruit and vegetables are primarily grown in greenhouses, where the ideal conditions for growth are artificially created. Waste heat from heavy industry is transported to the greenhouse, insects are kept out with pesticides, oftentimes CO2 levels in the greenhouse are artificially kept high.

For Dutch dairy, something similar happens. We’ve imported a race of cattle from the United States characterized by very little genetic diversity. In contrast to a normal cow, these cows continue to give milk while they’re pregnant, so when you’re eating dairy you’re ingesting the hormonal cocktail of a pregnant cow. If for whatever reason people would not milk them, the cows would die an agonizing death.

The cows eat a diet of high protein grass that is sown by machines. Machines were also used to flatten the Dutch landscape. If you notice the Dutch countryside isn’t just flat, but perfectly flat, that’s because agricultural modernization involved flattening the landscape for the farmers´ machinery. The high protein grass contains no flowers or other herbs, herbicides are sprayed to kill all of these. This makes the milk taste bland compared to milk you buy in nations like Austria, where flattening the landscape and eliminating all herbs and flowers is not an option.

It also leads to the exponential population growth of geese. In 2005, we had 25,000 pairs of breeding grey geese. In 2014, we had 70,000. Most Dutch birds are facing imploding numbers, but the geese are witnessing extreme population growth, because they are best adapted to the fact that the farmers allow just a single species of grass to grow on their fields.

Another way the Dutch produce so much food, is through meat production. If you lock a lot of pigs up in small cages and feed them soybeans imported from Brazil, you can produce a lot of food, without needing a lot of physical space. This leads to a problem however, in the sense that every animal defecates. The nutrients that are lost from the Brazilian soils end up sprayed out over Dutch farmland or dumped into the water.

The big problem they face at this point however, is that the nitrogen these animals emit is beginning to build up in the soil. That’s why halving emissions is not enough: For decades now, much more nitrogen has been accumulating in our soils than the soils release. Even with a halving of emissions, more nitrogen is still accumulating in the soils as illustrated in the image above, progressively worsening the quality of our soils.

We have to question however, whether the Dutch farmers really managed to dramatically reduce their emissions of nitrogen as much as the official statistics report. Manure processing companies and Dutch farmers have been found guilty of fraud with manure. They would pretend to process and export manure that was actually simply dumped onto their farmland. Ammonia emissions over the past ten years are supposed to have gone down dramatically, based on what farmers are reporting. When concentrations in the air are measured, that decline is not visible however. There´s no satisfying explanation for this discrepancy, so suspicions are that fraud occurs at an enormous scale.

So, to protect nature reserves against additional nitrogen and sulfur pollution, the Dutch government was forced by the judiciary branch to force a halt to a number of construction projects, in the middle of an unprecedented housing shortage in this country. As a consequence, it’s going to be even more difficult for young people to find affordable houses, many will probably end up spending until their thirties living with their parents, thereby guaranteeing that fertility rates will continue to go down in the years ahead.

A competent government would have anticipated this problem and forced farmers to reduce their enormous herds of cattle at a much earlier stage, but Dutch politicians don’t really anticipate problems, they only start thinking about them once they become uncontrollable. The climate change problem we face is another example of this same principle.

What I should explain first is why it’s such a big problem that nitrogen is accumulating in the soils. To start with, the nitrogen in our soils doesn’t stay in the soils forever. Some of it leaches out and ends up contaminating our groundwater. This has harmful health effects. Nitrogen in soils has even more harmful effects. The biggest most acute problem is biodiversity. Most plants are not adapted to such high levels of nitrogen, so just a few species, like the stinging nettle, pop up everywhere. This leaves the rarer species with no place to grow. The situation has become so severe that simply stopping emissions won’t be enough to allow these species to recover.

For humans, nitrogen in soils is also a problem, because nitrogen acidifies the soil. Particles that are normally solid end up dissolved in water. Aluminum for example is turning into a big problem. The concentrations of free aluminum in Dutch soils is becoming high enough for plants to die that are vulnerable to the effects of aluminum. In recent years, it’s a constant observation that free aluminum in our soils has drastically increased, because of their extreme acidity as a consequence of long-term nitrogen pollution. At some places, the extreme acidity is causing minerals to leach into our soils a hundred times faster than normal. A big problem that occurs as a consequence is a growing deficiency in potassium in many places.

With the decline in many plants caused by the acidification of our soils, many animal species are now starting to die out due to the absence of those plants. Mant species of butterfly are dependent on a particular species of plant to lay their eggs on. If that plant is gone, the butterfly ends up dying out too. The only butterfly species that seem to doing alright in the Netherlands are the species that are dependent on stinging nettles. Between 1890 and 2017, we’ve lost 80% of our butterflies.

Other animals are also vulnerable to the effects of all the nitrogen emitted by our farmers, our cars and our heavy industry. When the nitrogen reaches the soil, the increased acidity causes calcium to leach from the soil. This has led to a huge decline in calcium during the latter half of the 20th century, from which our Dutch soils never recovered. In the image above, you can see a dead chick. The bird died because it broke its legs from calcium deficiency while still in its nest. The big Dutch national forests are becoming eerily quiet, because the animals are suffering the consequences of the disturbances that hurt the plants.

But these are not the only problems we suffer due to the excessive influx of nitrogen into our soils. People used to fear the death of trees from acid rain, so efforts were taken to reduce sulphur emissions. Unfortunately, acidity in Dutch soils has continued to build up, even as emissions of sulphur and nitrogen have gone down. We now start to notice that oak trees are beginning to die, due to the effects of the accumulated nitrification. The trees are suffering from an absence of potassium and the absorption of free aluminum by their roots.

So, when some average uninformed bloke who bases his entire worldview on the Zerohedge comment section or some other gathering place for angry white males¹ complains to you that the farmers are our heroes because they produce our food and that they´re being unfairly persecuted by the EU, it’s worth pointing out to him that those same farmers have not just irreversibly damaged our soils, by spraying pesticides that kill off the lifeforms in our soil that sustain the soil’s fertility, but also acidified our nature reserves and thereby permanently killed off many rare plants and the animals that depends on those plants.

Keep in mind that half of the dairy farmers in the Netherlands are millionaires, even without including the value of their houses (which tend to be massive). These are not people you have to feel sorry for. If they’re forced to shut down their farm, you won’t find them sitting on the curb begging for change. What many decide to do after selling their land is to buy houses and spend the rest of their lives as cheapskate landlords. These are after all simply people who own capital producing assets.

The European Union and the Dutch government have implemented a variety of policies that insulate them from market forces, with export subsidies on dairy that allows our farmers to dump their dairy on third world markets, destroying the livelihoods of farmers there. These are not people you have to feel sorry for, they are essentially for all practical purposes a hereditary class of aristocrats, their livelihoods protected by our government.

Whenever some European government considers doing something about the endless subsidies the farmers receive, or the way their business model depends on turning our landscape into a stinging nettle infested hellhole, these farmers will throw a riot and dump their manure in town or block traffic to get their way. The reality is that these farmers have gotten away with an unsustainable business model that nobody dares to challenge for far too long, propped up by European subsidies and weak inadequate regulation. For many species, it´s already too late and experts generally agree that Dutch nature won´t recover on its own from the harm the farmers caused, it would require huge costly interventions to allow locally extirpated species to return. My suggestion is simple: If we want to give Dutch nature a chance for recovery, the first step should be to start eating the farmers instead of their produce.

 


1 – In the Netherlands, the most popular gathering place for this crowd is Geenstijl.nl.

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