Opinion piece | Nitrogen crisis a farmer’s problem? Just a sign of what lies ahead for us all

By Bram Büscher and Han Wiskerke

Dutch farmers have worked extremely hard to keep themselves afloat in an unsustainable farming system. This self-defeating success is now at its end. Farmers should get support and realistic options to shift to a sustainable system. And science and politics must draw lessons from this for the even greater societal transformation ahead. The nitrogen crisis is part of the proverbial tip of the iceberg of what awaits us all.

We are two Wageningen professors who study different sides of the human-nature relationship from the social sciences, focusing on agriculture and food (Wiskerke) and nature conservation, biodiversity and climate (Büscher). In both areas, the problems are massive and the need for a structural transition has been evident for a long time. Indeed, these problems share the same root causes and must therefore be connected to prevent the agricultural sector, as well as society as a whole, from running around in circles. Fortunately, there is a rich body of knowledge we can build on.

Many publications following ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson in 1962, ‘Limits to Growth’ by the Club of Rome in 1972, and ‘Building Blocks for an Integrated Agriculture’ by the Scientific Council for Government Policy in 1984, conclude that productivist agriculture is a dead end. Han’s PhD thesis from 1997 made a similar point: one of his propositions critically reflected on Dutch agricultural organisations’ opposition to environmental measures and argued that their self-styled ‘advocacy’ should rather be seen as the squandering of long-term self-preservation. For them, downplaying environmental problems was beneficial as it supported the holy economic grail that farmers contributed to so much: Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. As a result, farmers were willfully pressured into an unsustainable farming system. The price tag accompanying this strategy now presents itself: the costs to address the nitrogen crisis – just one of the symptoms of this unsustainable system – are already massive. What the nitrogen crisis makes crystal clear is that the longer you wait to act, the more painful it becomes. As the saying goes, soft healers make extremely stinking wounds.

Of course, there are conservative commentators who say that the nitrogen crisis is totally unexpected. That farmers did not see this coming and that it is all unfair. But this is an unwelcome distraction from what farmers are facing: a painful but necessary transition. Fortunately, there are also many farmers already making the transition and jointly (and with others) coming up with plans for a sustainable and tenable agriculture, addressing the nitrogen issue in conjunction with other problems (including climate change, water availability and quality, and biodiversity). Examples include the call for a national ‘spatial planning and agriculture’ acccord by the ‘Regie op Ruimte’ (Managing (rural) Space) initiative from 2020 and the ‘Groenboerenplan‘ (Green Farmer’s Plan) from 2022. These contain plenty starting points for a turnaround and prospects for farmers and market gardeners.

Initiatives such as these are crucial and must now be rapidly implemented in practice. Not only to give farmers a perspective and to move towards sustainable agriculture in the Netherlands, but also as a flywheel for the much larger transition that awaits society-as-a-whole. Indeed, the biodiversity and climate crises are plagued by the same response-logic as the nitrogen crisis: half-hearted measures that do not address the problems but relegate them to the margins of an unsustainable economic system. The climate crisis is already of such magnitude that the Paris targets are no longer viable – the dramatic consequences are plainly visible. The biodiversity extinction crisis follows suit, which will drastically worsen this already bleak picture. All this, too, has long been common knowledge. Bram’s 2009 thesis concluded unequivocally that neoliberal biodiversity and climate policies in a system of perpetual growth contribute to the problem, not the solution.

And yet many of our leaders insist that with a little more efficiency, some more ‘innovation’ and SMART technology, we are going to solve the problems. Society is hoodwinked in the same way that farmers have been fooled: encouraged to subsist and prosper in a system that is evidently unsustainable. A system that has not only led to terrifying environmental crises, but also to intensifying social crises around inequality, identity and even existence. We thus continue to race towards a much larger social-ecological precipice.

The question is: are we going to let it get this far? Are we going to keep putting little bandages on an ever-growing wound? Or are we finally going to deploy the already-present treasure of truly structural solutions? A small selection: get rid of fossil subsidies, abolish export credit insurance, drastically scale down polluting industry and related consumption, drastically curtail advertising, massively support nature-positive industry and activities, set a minimum and maximum income, and above all get rid of GDP as an indicator of well-being or progress.

Sound radical? Not really. Radical is willfully driving a group like farmers or even society-as-a-whole towards an existential crisis. Because let’s make no mistake: with respect to the larger social and environmental crises, we are all farmers. By giving farmers perspective towards a sustainable agricultural system, we can also give ourselves perspective towards a sustainable world.

Read the Dutch version here