Q&A: Is Government the culprit as EU farmers rise up?

Major protests by Dutch farmers have come as a shock, in one of the EU’s most successful agri-food industries. Exports from Dutch farms and agri-businesses totalled €90.3bn last year.

Q&A: Is Government the culprit as EU farmers rise up?

Major protests by Dutch farmers have come as a shock, in one of the EU’s most successful agri-food industries. Exports from Dutch farms and agri-businesses totalled €90.3bn last year.

Twice this month, thousands of Dutch farmers drove their tractors into The Hague, their capital city, causing the country’s worst-ever traffic jams.

Farmer unrest in the EU may be spreading, with Ireland’s beef factory protests and Dutch tractors jams followed this month by hundreds of farmers from Germany and France parking their tractors at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, protests in more than 17 German cities, and thousands of farmers in France protesting in each region and department.

The likely source of the Dutch farmer protests is the country’s council of state clamping down on nitrogen pollution from combustion engines and from fertiliser and animal waste on farms.

But farmers throughout Europe are also rising up against what they see as climate “hysteria”; bans on glyphosate weedkiller (by 2023) and restriction of fertilisers; EU free trade plans (Mercosur or CETA); the $7.5bn of US tariffs on European food imports; supermarkets squeezing prices paid to farmers; and weakening of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which hasn’t guaranteed farm produce prices since the 1990s, and which is likely to have a 5% smaller budget after Brexit.

In the Netherlands, the 11% reduction of dairy cows in 2017 and 2018, forced by the EU due to runaway phosphate pollution, was also a big shock.

An interesting analysis of the Dutch farmer protests has emerged from the country’s Wageningen University & Research, highly rated internationally for its work on food and food production.

Here is what public policy expert Jeroen Candel, assistant professor in the university’s public administration and policy group, said, when interviewed for the university’s Resource magazine.

What do you mean when you say the agriculture crisis is a classic example of government failure?

For several decades now, the government’s actions have been typified by a lack of any vision about where agriculture should be heading.

The current agricultural system in the Netherlands clearly has problems in various areas. There are issues with nitrogen, the contribution to climate change, zoonoses, food safety and so on. We’ve known that for a long while.

Yet, there’s no answer to the question of what we should be doing next with agriculture and the food system in broad terms. The government is constantly reacting to incidents and crises.

As a result, farmers continually have to deal with sudden, drastic measures, without any overarching narrative saying where they should be heading.

Why is that?

Since the ’80s and ’90s, the state has become much less interventionist, and has let the market become the primary mechanism for steering things. In agriculture, market forces have become a goal in their own right. European agriculture has been deregulated.

Farmers have to produce for the global market, which means the cost price is all that matters. I call that out-of-control neoliberalism.

You advocate a new narrative for agriculture. Isn’t that new narrative circular agriculture?

At present, circular agriculture is no more than a buzzword.

It has been in the coalition agreement for two years now, but what do politicians mean by it? What is the model that we’re aiming for? What kind of farm fits? How can you steer people towards that? How does it relate to European agricultural policy? We still need to fill in the details everywhere.

Another problem is that there are no nuances in the current political debate.

You’re either for farmers or against them. It is a case of nature versus the interests of farmers. Nature versus the economy. That’s very simplistic and polarising, whereas a more unifying discourse is actually needed.

A future vision is needed in which agriculture and nature go together.

The Cabinet wants to buy up farms near nature areas and subsidise the construction of low-emission barns?

If that is all they do, that would be a typical example of reactive policy, of quick fixes. That isn’t the answer to the question of where agriculture should be headed.

We need to see what else the Cabinet does. The minister, Carola Schouten, told the farmers in The Hague she didn’t want to halve the livestock population. So what does she want?

What is WUR’s role in creating that new narrative?

The formulation of policy is primarily a task for politicians. But we can help them as a university. Wageningen’s thinking on circular agriculture offers politicians ammunition for further developing their ideas. That is why it is so important that Wageningen nurtures and encourages this debate.

What does circular agriculture actually mean? Is it feasible and what are the views of the various disciplines? We need to engage with one another on this topic. And there’s no harm in disagreement.

Are you optimistic that far-reaching choices will be made?

I believe we are at a crossroads. To have agriculture so high up the political agenda is unique. The nitrogen crisis is what is known in policy theory as a “focusing event”, one in which an issue suddenly attracts an awful lot of attention.

That is often the ideal moment to push through major changes. This is a very exciting time. There is a sense of crisis, and the politicians will not be able to avoid making hard choices.

But those choices are only possible if you develop a vision of what you want from agriculture. The nitrogen crisis is creating a policy window, momentum that makes this possible.

At the same time, I’m afraid that a creative solution will be found to the nitrogen problem that amounts to yet another quick fix. And that is not enough. The challenges facing farming are too big for reactive policy.’

So, no one Wageningen vision on circular agriculture?

Definitely not. Wageningen has a tendency to centralise the formulation of a vision, whereas you should actually delegate it to the scientists.

Let them debate the issue. Management should facilitate and encourage this. We should accept that this might produce conflicting advice and recommendations rather than a silver bullet solution.

That is precisely the added value of scientific debate.

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