Learn from India, says Dutch vet as he explains Europe’s Farmers’ Crisis

Katrien Van Hooft, a veterinarian in the Netherlands, gave an online presentation on Monday, August 22, 2022, to shepherds from around the world to explain the challenges faced by farmers in the Netherlands and the lessons for farmers from the Dutch experience. In his closing speech, he urged farmers to look to India for lessons in sustainable farming. However, there are issues with farming in India that he did not address in his presentation.

The online meeting is part of a series of meetings taking place in 2026, the UN International Year of Lands and Pastoralists. Katrien Van Hooft explained that Dutch farmers have crossed so-called ‘planetary boundaries’ – a term coined by climate scientist Johan Rockstrom and colleagues. They mapped changes in climate, oceans and stratospheric ozone, along with biodiversity, nitrogen and phosphorus levels, land systems and water, and the levels at which these are unsustainable.

Van Hooft, the veterinarian, explained that Dutch agriculture had long been noted for its high productivity; it produced more than 14 billion liters of milk annually and exported most of its output internationally. Nevertheless, farmers are now protesting by taking to the streets with tractors.

He explained that the agriculture practiced in the Netherlands 70 years ago was low-yielding and labor-intensive – animals were milked by hand, and the cows were indigenous black-and-white Friesian cows. In the 1960s, policies changed after the establishment of the European Economic Community in 1957, of which the Netherlands was a founding member.

Milk used to be collected daily and stored in boxes – this has been changed; every farm must have a large tank to collect milk for several days, and collection was no longer daily. This meant that farmers were forced to scale up and become more specialized – those with dairy farms were then not growing crops. The stables were enlarged and the place where manure and urine were collected was under the floor of the stable. Previously, animals grazed freely on the land in the summer and were kept in stables only in the winter. The situation changed after policies favored larger farms, offering subsidies and government incentives for higher-scale, mechanized production.

Milk production has more than doubled since the 1960s, although the number of farms has declined sharply, from 1,80,000 in the 1960s to about 15,000 by 2020. The Netherlands has become the country of “lakes of milk” and “mountains of fat”, it is the world’s largest exporter of dairy products.

Katrien Van Hooft explained that a new breed of cows – the Holstein-Friesian – was introduced for higher milk yield. This required concentrated feed to give more milk and used more corn in the feed; cows no longer produced milk after being fed grass. By changing the animal’s stomach, the manure was more liquid – the previous dry manure produced less ammonia and nitrogen. Large manure tanks on farms were associated with high nitrogen levels.

Although the animals each produced much more milk than before—an average of about 33 liters per cow—the cows lived shorter lives, and farmers were able to get an average of just under three lactations per cow. Liquid manure was no longer used in fields that required chemical fertilizers – more nitrogen was in the air, insects were disappearing and biodiversity was declining. As a result, the loss of bird diversity also affected farms.

,Soybean feed is currently being shipped from South America for use in dairy, pig and chicken farms. The product is then mostly exported. This is also due to the large concentration of manure in the Netherlands, which, according to the vet, has become a “manure pile” – both feed and final product are sent abroad, and manure remains.

As the number of farms decreased and the size of each farm increased, more and more investment was made in mechanization and technology, aided by government subsidies and support for scale-up. The Netherlands is also a highly regulated market and a period of scale expansion could not be sustained over time. As farming costs become more expensive and incomes become less stable, younger people are reluctant to take over large farms. The rest of the farmers choose to either emigrate to Canada or other less heavily regulated countries, or to diversify their sources of income.

Meanwhile, the European Union has also adopted tougher emissions standards, and environmental groups have won cases in the Netherlands to force emissions reductions. In 2021, the government announced that it would set a target of a 50% reduction in nitrogen emissions by 2030, without publicly setting out a strategy for achieving this goal or giving farmers confidence before announcing it.

Batar explained that many farmers see the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are willing to change their practices to achieve this, but want the government to develop a clear road map to ensure that their incomes are not severely affected. The road ahead will require fewer cows per farm – currently the average farm has around 108 cows. Less farming and conservation of soil fertility should be planned to reduce emissions. By diversifying local breeds and income strategies, old forms of farming should be brought back. However, farmers have been socialized for intensification and higher scale operations. Government support and credit opportunities for small farmers are also limited, and only 3% of farms in the country are environmentally friendly.

Opting for more sustainable farming would mean fewer exports and higher prices for local consumers. Katrien Van Hooft said farmers around the world can look to India for more sustainable agriculture and livestock. However, according to the UN’s State of Food Security in the World report in 2015, India has the highest number of undernourished people in the world. More than 19 million of India’s population is undernourished, although India also has the largest Public Distribution System in the world. , to provide free grain to the poorest. According to a study, even two-fifths of the children of underprivileged non-poor households in India were found to be stunted.

Farming in India is not profitable, with agriculture employing about 55% of India’s workforce in 2019-20, while contributing only 17% to the national income. The share of landless agricultural laborers also increased from 28% in 1951 to 55% in 2011.

And in the livestock sector, there is remarkable resilience in smallholder operations – India is the world’s largest producer of milk, with 22% of the world’s total milk production occurring in India. Small herdsmen and shepherds also work with low input, keeping their animals mobile. However, this pastoral nomadism is not reflected in government policies, and the approximately 46 different pastoralist communities in India, estimated to be about 10% of India’s total population, have not received any policy incentives. Despite this, and despite the decline of communal grazing and settlement of such communities, such animal husbandry continues and pastoralists are responsible for more than half of India’s total milk production. Looking at other models of European sustainable animal husbandry, the high productivity and low productivity of Indian shepherds may be a model worth exploring.

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