It was the week in which you saw that the war in Ukraine has been relegated to The Hague’s B theme. It didn’t seem logical – but it was impossible to miss.
You could not say that the war was absent: Minister Rob Jetten (Climate, D66) will still run the coal-fired power stations that he previously wanted to close at full capacity. But the attention of politicians turned to Stroe: in conversation about the farmers’ protest, Gert-Jan Segers (CU) Monday Bee WNL the word ‘civil war’. That’s how deep the polarization can go over nitrogen, he warned. He squeezed in the word ‘civilized’, but that didn’t help.
A civilized civil war. Kind of like polite bomb-throwing.
The demonstration brought the familiar scenes – trekkers on highways, clamoring displeasure – and a protest leader who stated that The Hague is “at war with the peasant republic”. That’s what you got.
Politicians of all denominations showed understanding for farmers who do not want to say goodbye to the family business that their parents or grandparents often already ran.
It sounded logical, human, but it also showed how sensitive politicians are to protest. Because in debates about other people, the same Chamber advocates for years that citizens change professions after job loss (‘from work to work’) and continue training for this until a late age (‘lifelong learning’).
On Thursday, a very insecure minister Henk Staghouwer (Agriculture, CU) appeared in the nitrogen debate alongside Minister Christianne van der Wal (Nitrogen, VVD). The man was spanked by almost the entire House for lack of performance, and you understood why they in the coalition have been thinking for some time: we will not win the war with him.
Nevertheless, all the recent fuss about nitrogen policy was mainly political stage, or otherwise substandard politics. Because anyone who was ‘robbed’ in The Hague had not done their job.
Members of parliament who like to suggest that documents are deliberately withheld, were able to read in May and October last year which direction this was going.
Two studies were published, led by former director-general Peter Heij of Agriculture. In the piece from may it stated that national nitrogen policy ‘must be supported by the area-oriented reduction of relatively large exceedances’. In the piece from October this approach was extended to ‘(European) standards and taskings for water quality, soil, climate and biodiversity’.
Compare this to the coalition agreement and the recent letter from Van der Wal, and you will see that the policy is based on these principles. Caroline van der Plas (BBB) said this week that her neck hairs are standing on end of the plans. She could have just read the pieces last year.
And what was also striking: the desire among agricultural-friendly MPs to put the nitrogen issue into perspective and to ignore policy history.
This week I was in contact again with a civil servant I knew from more than thirty years ago: Lies Rookhuizen, now 75. After LNV researcher C. Henkens warned the ministry from 1965 about an excess of nitrogen and phosphate in the soil due to growing manure surpluses – As a result of intensive livestock farming, Rookhuizen took on the follow-up: after years of opposition from Agriculture, she mapped out manure surpluses per municipality as a CBS employee in the early 1980s.
Remarkably little has changed since then, she said. “At the time, the problem was already mainly in the Gelderse Vallei, the Peel and parts of Overijssel.” She transferred to the then Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment, where Pieter Winsemius (VVD) had been minister since 1982. “He got it.”
But policy had to be determined together with Agriculture. It mostly ended in fog. “Always woolliness.”
And just as MPs now hope for innovation as a way out for harsh interventions, they also aimed for that at the time. Every livestock farmer had a manure accounting system – it turned out to be ‘impossible’. A National Manure Bank in which manure was processed into granules. Also failed. “Getting water from manure is very expensive.”
In the meantime, the nitrogen standards have been stretched, with the approval of Brussels. Rookhuizen, who dropped out in 1996, still contributed to the Manure note in 1995. This contained a nitrogen standard for grassland of 180 kilos per hectare per year in 2010. It turned out to be unfeasible. So to organize the problem away, the standards were relaxed: in 2022 the nitrogen standard for grassland varied from 250 to 345 kilos per hectare annually, depending on the soil type. “We just became less strict,” said one current policymaker.
“The sector always found a new path for goats,” said Henri Kruithof, director of agricultural information in the period 1993-2001, later VVD spin doctor.
Politicians from all parties took part. In 2015, under State Secretary Sharon Dijksma (PvdA), the European milk quotas were scrapped at the insistence of the Netherlands. The result: overproduction, falling prices, increased nitrogen emissions.
The Programmatic Approach to Nitrogen (PAS) came in 2009 from the then MPs Ger Koopmans (CDA) and Diederik Samsom (PvdA). This approach also broadened nitrogen emissions, and the Council of State drew a line in 2019: behold the current nitrogen crisis.
Opponents of intervention have since found each other in half facts. They say: we have already reduced so much nitrogen emissions – and are silent about the fact that the Netherlands, as a European frontrunner, is still far above the standard. They say: the calculation model is not good – and they keep silent about the fact that the model has been frequently validated with measurements. They say: farmers have to move for migrant homes – and not to say that building a million new homes requires a maximum of 1 percent of the existing agricultural land, thus MP Pieter Grinwis (CU) against his colleague Van der Plas (BBB) on Thursday.
Myths that divide and radicalize the sector. The agricultural press also acquired a suspicious and sometimes fact-resistant branch. And the farmers’ lobby, traditionally related to middle parties, also radicalized, with Farmers Defense Force (FDF) as agitator.
The result was on the podium in Stroe on Wednesday: MPs from FVD, PVV, BVNL, JA21, BBB and SGP who were applauded by the peasant masses, although colleagues from VVD, D66 and GroenLinks had to stay away because the NCTV could not guarantee their safety.
It also stated their input to Thursday’s debate. Denial of facts, denial of history, denial of the importance of a solution.
Lies Rookhuizen said: but keep an eye on the farmer. The innovations that politics so often embraced as a way out, she said, enriched Rabobank and impoverished livestock farmers: more debt, higher production pressure, lower prices.
And if we want this group to participate in the transition after all, “it would be good if people at a high political and official level openly acknowledge what went wrong”.
Not with a parliamentary inquiry. “Ministers who resign will not solve anything.” Preferably through, for example, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with which South Africa dealt with its civil war. “Otherwise, the country will remain deeply divided.”
When I first heard it, I thought: nice dream. But on closer inspection I saw: she has a point.
This drama needs people to explain their choices, not for witch hunts or political gain, but as an explanation for farmers, as a marker of a new beginning. To dispel myths and give a face to an uneasy past.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 25, 2022
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