Roos Benard works at the Dutch section of Greenpeace, where he is responsible for campaigning against the loss of biodiversity. This puts her at the center of the conflict that the government and farmers are currently fighting in Holland. For weeks, tractors have been blocking supermarkets, airports and highways, and farmers have been threatening politicians. Roos estimates that the plans could mean the end for a third of livestock farms. Roos Benard should actually be happy with that – but for her this is just the beginning.
WORLD: Your government is planning measures that, according to its own assessment, could lead to a 30 percent reduction in livestock and thus also in the corresponding farms. Farmers say this amounts to essentially expropriation, a ban on work and a threat to food security in the Netherlands. Is that a correct assessment of the situation?
Roos Benard: No, not at all. For example, as far as food security is concerned: around 65 percent of meat and dairy products from the Netherlands are exported to other countries.
WORLD: That means there will be problems with the supply of other countries?
Benard: What’s really threatening the food supply is climate change and biodiversity loss. Farming needs to be transformed everywhere, including through a reduction in meat production, which is far too inefficient: to produce a kilo of meat, you use massive amounts of cultivated land, water, and so on.
WORLD: The other part of the question concerned the accusation that farmers were being dispossessed, that their way of life was being abolished.
Benard: Well, we see it differently. Firstly, we have to recognize that here in the Netherlands there is crisis after crisis over livestock. The nitrogen emissions from the animal industry lead to massive species extinction.
There is also a much greater threat to farmers, which we also stand up against: in the last ten, 20 years, half of Dutch farmers have been put out of business because they have to produce for global markets. Too many have lost this race to the bottom. At the same time, it is also the case that the government does not simply want to “expropriate” but has offered 25 billion euros for the transition to another type of agriculture. So it is also about the farmers who want to make the transition to a more sustainable system being able to get the funds to do so.
WORLD: The meat industry is considered a pillar of the Dutch economy. If that 30 percent reduction in livestock farms comes about, won’t that be a huge hit to economic output?
Benard: The analyzes that are available say that we have to reckon with a 0.07 percent to 0.15 percent slump in gross domestic product. The decline in jobs is said to be between 0.14 percent and 0.21 percent.
WORLD: Why has the focus on exports reduced the number of Dutch farmers so much?
Benard: Well, because we produce so much for the global markets, it’s all about reducing production costs. About keeping a lot of animals to be profitable. The motto is: do business more and more intensively. In our opinion, this is the main reason why so many smaller farms and businesses simply cannot survive.
WORLD: So do you see a solution in Dutch farmers or German farmers and Belgian farmers only producing for their home markets?
Benard: At least it’s strange that the right-wing parties, which always preached free trade, the opening of markets for cheaper products, have always acted as protectors of the farmers at the same time. So we see an inconsistency here.
WORLD: So protectionism or no protectionism in agriculture?
Benard: Stopping free trade agreements is very important to us at Greenpeace. At the same time, we must help farmers make the transition ahead. We need to shift from intensive animal husbandry to more vegetables and greens – to make the protein transformation happen. But another very important point is that we have to find solutions to pay farmers fair prices. Meat must not remain so cheap.
WORLD: This “protein transformation”, i.e. the switch from animal proteins to alternative sources of supply: Quite a few people eat like this, even if the tendency is slightly increasing. Should they be forced into this form of nutrition, in which politics restricts meat production?
Benard: No. But we have to take big steps towards this transformation. At the same time, we must at least eliminate the false incentives for further expansion of the cheap meat industry. At the EU subsidy level, it’s still like this: the more animals you have, the more money you get for intensive farming. So there are all sorts of false incentives to keep things the way they are and we need strong governments in the EU to change that. In the Netherlands we are on our way: The protein transformation is on the political agenda. There’s also some thinking about how to increase taxes on meat and decrease taxes on vegetables and so on. But these are really tiny, tiny, tiny steps. The situation in Ukraine also contributed to this progress.
WORLD: How so?
Roos Benard: The shortage of grain supplies has brought one fact to the fore: the vast amount of fertile grain-growing land used only for the production of animal feed. In Germany, for example, around 60 percent of the yield ends up in the feeding trough. If we reduced the amount of grain used as animal feed across Europe by just seven percent, we could close the supply gap caused by the Russian war in Ukraine.
WORLD: The Netherlands wants to provide 25 billion euros for the sustainable restructuring of agriculture, you said earlier. But can the farmers really do something with a complete conversion of their farms? They are often in debt because they have invested in ever larger livestock and more expensive equipment to keep up. At the same time, these are often family farms whose lives are tied to the type of farming they know. So how exactly is this money going to help you get out of this situation, balance yourself?
Benard: Our biggest concern is that precisely this money will further cement false promises, false path dependencies. The more conservative parties want to concentrate unilaterally on technical measures, with which, for example, faeces and urine are separated in cattle sheds so that no harmful ammonia is formed from the combination, or with which exhaust gases are to be collected. That would only drive farmers to even higher costs, more livestock, and even more intensive, faster production—and keep the cycle of investment and debt that many farmers are stuck in.
WORLD: That doesn’t answer the question.
Benard: I know that farmers face a painful process. But they must now decide to do it really differently than previous generations. And maybe they need to become farmers for carbon storage, too, like farmers who rewet bogs, make insulating material out of reeds. Parts of our subsidy structure need to be geared towards such things.
WORLD: But is that still agriculture?
Benard: I think you can still be a farmer in the future, but maybe a different kind of farmer. I believe that is the truth, and a very painful truth. You have to be willing to change.
WORLD: Are there farmers who are already doing this?
Benard: Yes, of course there are! These are what I call the dark green pawns. You don’t have to import any fertilizer or fodder. The farmers who are in the news, like the protests now, are often quite aggressive. The farmers who do things differently are sometimes a bit afraid to appear in public. They go down there a bit.
WORLD: That means, in your eyes, the Netherlands are already on the right track?
Benard: In fact, much more has to happen. At Greenpeace we believe that by 2030 we need to reduce livestock by 70 percent. This is our vision. It’s really, really important to reduce the amount of animals to stop the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis.
WORLD: Do you think that such statements, even abstract things like “biodiversity crisis”, provoke the anger of the farmers – because the impression remains: bureaucrats and scientists have come up with something that we now have to pay for?
Benard: Well, what sometimes pisses me off is that farmers really do have one of the most aggressive lobbies. Their representatives, including those in Parliament, say things like: The nitrogen crisis is a dream, it doesn’t exist at all. In some regions we see a species loss of 70 percent – 70 percent! Biodiversity is vital for us due to the countless functions that animals and insects have in the ecosystem!
WORLD: You could also interpret the frustration of the farmers like this: Some people came up with the globalization of their industry and the compulsion to export worldwide, they went along with it, and now it’s supposed to be over all of a sudden? Here we are again with the topics “debt trap” and “path dependencies”.
Benard: This situation was not thought up by “just any” people, but by the agricultural industry – this aggressive farmer lobby works for them, and not for the small farmers! This industry has always ensured that factory farming remains the farmers’ business model – because they can then sell them expensive equipment and feed. The same applies to the cultivation of food – of course the big ones don’t want to make the switch because they can no longer sell expensive special seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.
WORLD: In any case, the anger is now on the street. How do you think a solution to this conflict could look like? Will this slow down the pace of restructuring agriculture, in the sense of: maybe not a 30 percent reduction in livestock, but only a 10 percent reduction for the time being?
Benard: No, that’s not a solution, if only because we have to get the nitrate pollution of our groundwater under control by 2027, as regulated by the EU. For that alone we need the 30 percent rule. I just hope that the 25 billion euros from the Dutch government can really be used sensibly for the conversion.
WORLD: But that will also mean that some farmers will have to close their businesses, right?
Benard: Yes, that’s the way it is.