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Farming is huge in the Netherlands. The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter by value despite its tiny size—just one-237th the landmass of the largest exporter, the United States (US). The nation has achieved such success in agriculture with its booming agro-tech industry. The industry combines big tech advancements in robotics, AI, and biotechnology with the nation’s vast irrigation networks to raise dense concentrations of high-value agricultural goods.

In recent years, however, agriculture has become the center of a debate about the future of the Dutch economy, environment, and inevitably national identity. For decades, the Netherlands has exceeded the European Union (EU)’s nitrogen emission limits, and agriculture is the nation’s largest emitter. In May 2019, the Raad van State (Council of State)—the country’s highest administrative court—made a momentous decision: it halted all building permits in areas that exceeded nitrogen limits and ordered the government to comply with EU regulations.

The May 2019 ruling triggered the stikstofcrisis, or nitrogen crisis. Suddenly, thousands of businesses were operating in a legal grey area, locking the public in a divisive political debate about what to do with nitrogen emissions. 

Four years later, the nitrogen crisis still dominates Dutch politics. The government, environmentalists, and urbanites are asking farmers to make the greatest reductions since they emit 45 percent of the nation’s nitrogen. Farmers reject these demands, fearing the disproportionate nitrogen reduction threatens their profession, livelihood, and societal role.

As this debate unfolds, freezing permits is proving a major drag on the Dutch economy. Businesses cannot expand their operations, developers cannot build new houses, and farmers cannot grow their farms. Attempts to regulate agriculture have sparked years of protest and given rise to a successful farmer populist movement that swept provincial elections in March. With money on the line, the government is under tremendous pressure to resolve the crisis, but resolving the nitrogen crisis requires making painful choices about who pays for a clean environment.

Though the nitrogen crisis may seem limited to the Netherlands, it offers insight into difficult climate change decisions that all major economies will have to make eventually.

Why Nitrogen?

Although carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary cause of climate change, several other chemicals contribute to climate change and environmental degradation. Nitrogen is one of these. Though pure nitrogen (N2) is essential to the air we breathe, industrial activity converts N2 into greenhouse gasses that can be far more polluting than CO2.

Industrial agriculture is concerning because synthetic nitrogen fertilizers (N fertilizers) and livestock emit a lot of nitrogen. For example, synthetic N fertilizers emit nitrous oxide (N2O) which contributes 265 to 300 times more to climate change per particle than CO2 over 100 years. In 2018 the N fertilizer supply chain released 1.13 billion tonnes of CO2. N fertilizers accounted for over 2 percent of global emissions, more than all commercial airlines that year. 

The Dutch crisis has more to do with nitrogen’s ecological impacts. Agriculture deposits ammonia (NH3) and nitric oxides (NOx) into the air, soil, and waterways. Although this process is essential to fertilizing soil, when these chemicals spread outside agricultural spaces, they harm human health and ecosystems.

Awareness about nitrogen’s environmental effects is minimal outside the scientific community, and nitrogen pollution is getting worse. According to The Food and Agriculture Organization, synthetic N fertilizer use will grow 50 percent by 2050. Such an increase would have devastating climate consequences. Yet it is difficult to reduce agriculture’s nitrogen emissions because they are as essential to modern agriculture as CO2 emissions are to modern transportation.

Roots of the Crisis

Nitrogen has become a big concern in the Netherlands because the country has violated EU laws on nitrogen emissions for decades.

Nitrogen limits in the Netherlands began in 1979 when the nation introduced nature conservation areas to protect wild birds. In 1992, the newly-founded EU integrated these areas into a bloc-wide framework of ecological reserves called Natura 2000 areas. The EU limited nitrogen emissions near these Natura 2000 areas to minimize human impacts and enhance biodiversity.

At first, the regulations worked well. In the 1990s, the Netherlands reduced nitrogen emissions by 36%. Farmers also did their part, reducing agricultural nitrogen emissions by 64% while maintaining consistent growth. The Netherlands seemed on their way to compliance with Natura 2000 limits, but after 2005, emissions began to stagnate. Part of the slowdown in nitrogen cuts was geographical. Unlike larger nations, the Netherlands cannot move roads, industry, and farmland away from conservation areas, which makes it difficult to keep nitrogen levels in Natura 2000 areas low.

The nitrogen problem got worse in 2008. During the financial crisis, politicians wanted to address economic problems by fast-tracking construction projects, but the EU’s nitrogen caps stood in the way. To circumvent environmental protections, MPs redesigned nitrogen laws in 2009 with a plan called the Programma Aanpak Stikstof (the Nitrogen Approach Program, or PAS).

Critics quickly pointed out that the program upset environmental safeguards to make way for economic growth. The PAS faced five years of parliamentary debate before it passed in 2014. Ultimately, only two parties–the Green Left and the Animal Rights Party–voted against the bill. 

After taking effect in July 2015, the PAS began churning out development permits, and nitrogen emissions began to rise again. By 2018, 78% of the Netherlands’ Natura 2000 areas exceeded nitrogen limits. That year, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Netherlands violated EU laws, which led to the Council of State’s nitrogen ruling in May 2019.

The Crisis Today

In November 2019, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government unveiled the first plan for lowering nitrogen emissions, which the public termed the nitrogen laws. The laws include new agricultural regulations, a budget for optional livestock farm buyouts, re-evaluations of conservation areas, and lower speed limits on highways. To ease economic anxiety, the government also promised to grant permits to more than 3,400 companies that violated nitrogen regulations. Most of the responsibility to cut emissions fell on farmers.

In response, thousands of farmers blocked motorways with their tractors and demonstrated in The Hague between October 2019 and February 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted government negotiations with farmers in March and paused further action for over two years. 

In June 2022, Rutte’s government unveiled the final nitrogen plan: the “National Program for Rural Areas” (National Program). The National Program is far more comprehensive than its 2019 counterpart. It intends to cut nitrogen emissions in half by 2050 using a system of detailed regional quotas that force more polluting regions to make larger reductions. Regional reduction targets range from 12 percent in urban areas to 95 percent in Natura 2000 areas. 

The law introduces new regulations to reach these goals in various sectors, including transportation and construction, but the main focus remains on agriculture. The National Program attempts to ease this pressure on farmers with a €24.3 billion transition fund. Still, weightier measures like the €7 billion buyout scheme for livestock farms have many farmers worried for their future.

With the Program’s ambitious targets and focus on rural farmers, the nitrogen laws have become more than environmental regulations; they explicitly reshape rural life and farming in Dutch society. Prime Minister Mark Rutte has been quite direct about this transformation of rural life. Introducing the National Program, Rutte stated, “It is not a goal on its own to be the second largest agricultural exporter in the world.” As his program clarifies, “There isn’t a future for all farmers in [this] approach.”

The National Program seemed to validate farmers’ concerns and reignited nationwide farmer protests that continue today. Most protests have been peaceful, but some blockades have escalated to disrupt food supply chains and, in one instance, resulted in a police shooting at a protester.

The recent Dutch provincial elections in March 2023 have further complicated the government’s plans. A new farmer populist party, the BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer-Citizen Movement, or BBB), won a majority in every province. Their landslide victory was a clear reaction against the nitrogen laws. The party ran a platform based on a “Right to Agriculture Act” that found mass appeal among voters who sympathized with the farmers’ cause. BBB leader Caroline van der Plas has repeatedly rejected the legitimacy of EU nitrogen regulations and holds that the Dutch state has cooked the controversy up out of nothing.

The BBB’s success threatens the National Program because the responsibility to implement emission cuts falls on provincial governments, which the BBB now controls. The provinces also elect the Senate, meaning the BBB may have a chance to challenge the nitrogen laws at a national level.

Beyond Boeren

In some ways, the nitrogen crisis mirrors debates on climate action globally. It is tempting to think of the farmers as Dutch versions of coal miners from the Dakotas or Albertan oil sands workers. Indeed, their discourses bear many similarities. Educated urbanites argue that transitioning to sustainable industry is as inevitable as climate change itself. They expect a tough but noble sacrifice. Rural people then point out the hypocrisy in urbanites’ unwillingness to share the costs of climate action despite their dependency on the rural industry.

However, three dimensions make the Dutch nitrogen crisis an important case study, because eventually, all the world’s major economies will face similarly painful decisions about bearing the costs of climate change.

First, the nitrogen laws are unusual because climate action comes from the judiciary, not the legislature. Hence, they offer insight into how courts may shape climate policy and its success. The Council of State’s binding ruling may have been decisive in forcing action despite all the blowback from farmers.

Second, the Netherlands has a history of compromise in politics. Observing the outcome of the Nitrogen Laws through this lens can show us both the potential and the limits of compromise in climate politics.

Finally, the nitrogen crisis shows us that the urban-rural divides along which many environmental issues unfold are not as deep as they seem. The nitrogen ruling has arguably hurt urban dwellers as much as farmers. The stoppage of building permits has created a devastating “shortage of 390,000 homes” in a nation of just 17.5 million people. 

Public support for the nitrogen laws and the farmers hardly varies between urban and rural areas. Farmers and rural life still have broad support from the Dutch public. Like manufacturing jobs in America’s rust belt, farming is a part of Dutch identity and community cohesion. Though the Dutch have replaced idyllic pastoral landscapes and windmills with the orange glow of UV lights and multi-level greenhouses, farming remains part of the Dutch popular consciousness. Boer zoekt vrouw (Farmer Seeks a Wife) was the nation’s second most-watched television series last year—imagine The Bachelor with farmers. Hence, threats to farming are as much threats to identity and community as they are to individual livelihood.

The strongest predictor of opposition to farmers today is not urban living but a university degree. In the Netherlands, university graduates show the greatest support for nitrogen laws, the shrinking of animal agriculture, and forced buyouts of livestock farms. Education then appears to be central to how Dutch environmental politics are unfolding. This educational gap is happening elsewhere too. In the US, for instance, university education is quickly becoming the most significant predictor of political opinion–greater than race, class, or geography. 

Hence, as necessary as climate action is, many of its educated and urban advocates could benefit from reflecting on how their position might change if their livelihood, home, or identity was at stake.

Edited by Ashley Renz

Anthony Hablak

Tony is a History graduate from Simon Fraser University, born in Vancouver to Slovak parents but now based in The Netherlands. Currently an archivist and delivery-boy by trade, his research focuses on...