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The tiny country which feeds the world - why the Dutch are looking at us

It’s known as the tiny country that feeds the world, but not everyone is happy with the Netherlands’ comparatively large agricultural output, writes Tom Levitt.

Dairy, or the ‘engine of the economy’ as the sector likes to refer to itself, stands out above others. Dutch farmers produce so much milk that around two thirds of it is sold abroad, making the country the fifth largest exporter in the world.

 

But for a wealthy, heavily urbanised population, the arguments about maximising production – and not biodiversity – are turning sour.

 

About 80 per cent of farms in the Netherlands are producing more manure than they can legally use on their farm and paying about €550 million a year to get rid of it.

 

“The Netherlands is like a big city. Everyone has a house, good life and enough to eat, so they think about nature. The pressure is higher than poorer or more rural countries,” Richard Schepe, from Rabobank, told me.


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WWF, not known for taking strong positions on livestock, is calling for a 40 per cent reduction in the number of cows in the country.

 

It says improved productivity and efficiency cannot offset what is the lowest biodiversity in Europe after Malta, with just 15 per cent of the country’s original plant and animal life remaining.

 

Until now, the Dutch food and farming lobby could count on political support. But last year’s national elections saw a surge in support for two parties prioritising restrictions on the livestock sector – GreenLeft and Party for the Animals.

 

The Dutch people I spoke to looked to the UK as a kindred spirit when it comes to public sentiments and seem unsurprised at our focus on enhancing the natural environment over food production.

 

Hans Van Trijp, a professor at Wageningen University, said, “If you would redesign the Netherlands and were not tied to the status quo, would you do it [the dairy sector as it is] again? The answer is probably not.”

 

Yet this is where the similarities end. While the Netherlands faces pressure to cut exports, the UK has the second largest net dairy deficit in the world behind China.

 

If we incentivise farmers to convert land into wildflower meadows, as Defra Secretary Michael Gove has signalled, and sign trade deals with the United States, what will that mean for food production, biodiversity and land use?

 

The Dutch, like others, will be watching to find out...

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