The Dutch Touch

I hope you are enjoying the gloom of late fall, and powering through it by preparing for holiday festivities and visits with loved ones.   It’s strange to think that in less than a month the days will be getting longer again – so, much to celebrate! 

This time of year, where we aren’t quite at winter yet – but it’s miserable out – is challenging to get motivated to face the mud.  I wonder what our ancestors occupied themselves with at this time of year?  In Britain, this time of year was dedicated to “H&D”: hedging and ditching.  Where ditches and drains were improved and maintained and the traditional “fences” of the landscape were “laid” and made stock tight.  You can watch this film from 1942 to witness the process.

I wonder what my Dutch ancestors did on the first day of December?  Perhaps they carved themselves a new pair of clogs – the pre modern version of the rubber boot, and the footwear of choice in a wet, muddy land.   Today farmers in Holland are probably preoccupied with recent news that the government will be using eminent domain to forcibly purchase and close upwards of three thousand farms in the name of environmental protection.  The European Union has imposed limits on nitrogen run off and reverting these productive farms to nature is the Galaxy Brain solution in this case.   That this needed food production will simply occur somewhere else doesn’t seem to factor into these decisions – which is unfortunate because Dutch farmers do more with less than anyone – some of the most innovative and efficient farmers in the world.

Having never learned to speak Dutch, it has been difficult for me to get to the bottom of this issue, everything being poorly articulated second hand by English media.  For instance, just finding out how many farms there are in Holland is tricky – I see numbers ranging from 10,000-70,000 (I think the distinction may be between farm businesses and actual plots of land).  Whatever it is, 3,000 is a significant chunk of it, and it’s not as though this is being done for the sake of “doing” anything but rather being allowed to revert to “nature” which is a bit of a stretch, considering The Netherlands is probably the most un-“natural” country in the world.

The saying goes that “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.”  And this is largely true. Half of the country is less than a yard above sea level and a quarter of it used to be under water. Formerly a treacherous marsh – a constantly shifting delta where three major rivers, the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt enter the North Sea – the Dutch have gradually tamed the fertile land and believe it or not, despite being a tiny country with the second highest population density in Europe, are the world’s second largest agricultural exporter by value (after the USA).  It really is remarkable what they accomplish.

This legislation was preceded by months of protests, but popular support and international attention were not enough to sway the directives of the wonks in Brussels, and so we are going to witness a significant reduction in Holland’s agricultural output.  The protests were remarkable, not only in their scope, but more to the extent that *you were able to get Dutch people to stop working*. A peaceful, orderly sort, it’s not easy to pull a boer off of his polder and the common message was “there is no future here if this comes to pass”.   So, I highly doubt these soon to be landless farmers will stick around very long.   The government is offering them 120% of the value of their farm and being stubborn farmers, “wooden shoes, wooden head, wouldn’t listen”, will take the money and set up shop where they are appreciated.   The exodus of Dutch farmers is nothing new: Canada has been very much blessed by them for the better part of a century.

Unfortunately those same Dutch farmers will face similar regulatory hurdles here in Canada where over the summer the federal government resolved their intention to reduce agricultural nitrogen *emissions* (not run off) by 30%.   Well, what are nitrogen emissions and why are we trying to limit them?  In this case the molecule in question is N2O (yes, laughing gas), and although it is released naturally by soils everywhere, it is considered a greenhouse gas and the use of manure and fertilizer can increase what occurs naturally.  

The government has made a point to emphasize this is a goal, not a law limiting access to fertilizer.  What is vexing about this though, is that unlike nitrogen runoff (which can at least be tested with a water sample), there is no way to actually *measure* nitrogen emissions on a farm, and so the entire exercise becomes model-based and the only way to “achieve” it would be to reduce fertilizer use by 30%.  Given that nitrogen is the most important plant nutrient (after the carbon they draw from the atmosphere) this would have devastating effects on yields.  You think food is expensive now? Most worryingly, it has been suggested that these goals will be “incentivized” by tying compliance with access to Agristability: crop insurance.   So don’t worry folks!  It’s just a goal!  Totally voluntary! It’s not like we will make it impossible for you to conduct business without compliance!

There are two presuppositions I object to in both of these cases: 1) that farmers are willfully polluting and 2) that we would be better off with less farming.

Outside of nitrogen being an extremely important plant nutrient, it is also very expensive (produced with natural gas in the Haber-Bosch process).  Farmers, cheap in the first place, are also business people, and so don’t have any interest in losing nitrogen to waterways or the atmosphere.   (Farmer’s wouldn’t use any nitrogen at all if they could get away with it!)  There are now 8 billion people and counting on planet earth, and we can largely thank/blame synthetic nitrogen for that.

Humanity has become such a juggernaut and our lives so insulated and removed from nature, we forget that we are part of nature as well.  And so as much as I appreciate a productive and human stewarded landscape, I can understand the impulse to “rewild” or preserve natural spaces.  Taking existing farmland out of production will not accomplish that.  There are only more mouths to feed, and the crops that were grown there before will go on to replace some nature elsewhere. 

When you have such a manipulated, terraformed countryside as Holland, and given its incredible productivity, why take that land out of production?  They literally built a country for intensive farming.  Similarly, if you’re a Canadian farmer, why take measures that would reduce your yields by 30%?  It’s not that the need or demand for food has gone down.  You’ll just have to plant 30% more land (and use that many more resources to do so).   In fact, when food prices are high and supply chains are disrupted, why would we grow *less* food?  These seem like self defeating measures, and in practice, they are. 

On March 2 of this year, on the eve of the growing season, Canada slapped a 35% tariff on Russian imports, which includes 90% of the nitrogen fertilizer in Eastern Canada.   To be clear, Russian fertilizer manufacturers did not pay this: Canadian farmers (and later, consumers) did.  What was accomplished here?  Even if we were to give those in charge the benefit of the doubt and presume these measures are well intentioned, the obviously flawed logic and the openly hostile, top down approach to the industry they are regulating suggest these people at the very least, are not qualified. 

At this point, you might be like “Wow I’m surprised Charles is so supportive of all of this industrial agriculture”.  Well yes, it’s not my cup of tea, nor what I would want to do personally with a large landbase and lots of money… but I am also a fan of our current standard of living, and the accessibility of food.  Measures that will restrict and limit food production means that it becomes scarce and expensive, and the poor are the ones who are going to suffer for it.

I honestly think the significant problems of our global industrial food system are most acutely social, cultural, economic – spiritual – even.  Part of why I advocate for the resurrection of a local food system is that I feel people need dignified work, doing something with their hands, and to relate to the world around them – in fields, greenhouses, bakeries and butcher shops.  There is actually less land in agriculture today than there was 100 years ago, and at no time has farming been more regulated or resources more carefully handled.   The last thing farmers need is more regulation – let alone seizing farms or restricting their productivity.

The weaknesses of global supply chains have been laid bare at this point, and we need to be flexible and allow individuals and communities to chart their own paths.  At the end of the day, those Dutch farmers are going to be ok – they looked at a swamp and thought “let’s make this one of the most prosperous places in the world”, and they did – they will figure this out.  We could learn something from that perspective.

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