Why is Dutch Agriculture Critically Dependent Upon Technology?

September 11, 2023
David Sunnyside

The Netherlands has become a global food leader and the world’s top meat exporter, but its farming is also highly intensive and the country suffers from environmental damage. Last year a wave of farmer protests erupted over a government plan to cut nitrogen emissions by closing farms. The protests swept a new agrarian party, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging, or BBB), into victory in provincial elections. The stikstofcrisis, as it’s known in Dutch, has highlighted the tension between sustainable agriculture and the financial and livelihood needs of farmers, who are often deeply in debt.

A veal farmer named Wim Brouwer sits on his terrace, a laptop open to a page showing that he’s one of the Netherlands’ peak polluters due to the high levels of nitrogen excreted by his herd. He’s trying to figure out how to reduce those levels without driving his business out of the country, and he’s not alone.

Agricultural researchers across the Netherlands are scrambling to find solutions, many of them centered on agroforestry, which harmoniously integrates reduced livestock with profitable trees like hazelnut, walnut, and cider apple—also known as silvopasture. This type of multifunctional farming has the potential to reduce energy use and carbon emissions, and bring climate change and economic security together, researcher Lennart Fuchs tells Mongabay.

But the concept is a radical departure from the Dutch model, where for decades, all incentives were focused on intensifying production, pushing farmers into ever-larger fields and spending more money on machinery and fertilizer to achieve better results. This approach has contributed to a skewed distribution of wealth, pushed many farmers into debt, and created ecological problems that threaten the entire food system.

David Sunnyside
Co-founder of Urban Splatter • Digital Marketer • Engineer • Meditator
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