Farmers block an Albert Heijn distribution center during the farmers' protest against the Dutch government's nitrogen emission plans in Utrecht. Image: ANP

Farmers’ Uprising in Europe And Agricultural Crisis in Netherlands


Over the past months, Europe saw an eruption of farmer protests with tractors blocking highways around Paris, farmers clashing with police in Brussels, and tens of thousands of farmers taking to the streets in other major European cities. Their demands vary, from halting negotiations of the Mercosur free trade1 deal to advocating for fair incomes and secure livelihoods, alongside calls to decrease environmental regulations and halt the European Green Deal2. As I walked between burning bales of hay and EU offices splattered with manure, the similarities with the 2019-2022 farmers’ protests in The Netherlands were striking. Those protests, rooted in a history of agricultural transformation and marked by the rise of a regressive populist movement in The Netherlands serve as a cautionary tale for Europe at large. In order to understand better why European farmers have taken to the streets, the dynamics behind similar protests in The Netherlands can provide some answers as well as lessons.

The genesis of crises

The roots of the current Dutch agricultural crisis can be traced back to the era of industrialization, intensification, and commodification initiated by Sicco Mansholt3, a Dutch farmer and social democrat who later became an influential agricultural minister. With the slogan ‘No more hunger’, the first Minister of Agriculture of the post-war-era – Mansholt initiated a rapid transition of the agricultural sector under the guise of food security. Pre-war Dutch agriculture mostly consisted of small-scale, mixed farms (livestock and cereal). Mansholt implemented policies to build an “efficient, competitive, and modern” agricultural sector, with profound implications.

Practically, the implemented policies resulted in fewer yet larger farms. The period from 1950 to 2021 saw an average decline of 15 farms per day, as the amount of farms decreased from 410.000 to 52.0004. Meanwhile, the average farm size grew from 5,7 hectares in 1950 to 32,4 hectares in 2016, even though the total amount of farmland decreased by 20 percent5. Hundreds of thousands of people were pushed out of farming, and into wage labor, as a result6

The number of family members working on family farms has shifted from 479.000 in 1950 to 118.000 in 2016, while official data on non-family wage laborers shows a decrease from 101.000 to 54.000. In part, this labor force has been replaced by (seasonal) migrant workers, but largely this work was made redundant as a result of mechanization and agrochemical inputs7.

As a rule, those farmers who successfully navigated through the process of land concentration, intensification, and monopolization are those who became highly dependent on external inputs8. To finance their inputs and technological ‘improvements’, farmers resort to taking on debt; to compete with global markets, they are dependent on (EU) subsidies9.

On average, Dutch dairy farmers receive over one-third of their income from subsidies and have a 1.3 million euro debt, which has more than doubled since 2000. The disparities among farmers are enormous: while 36% of all farmers earn less than the minimum wage, one in five working farmers are millionaires10. Many are, thus, caught between ruthless competition and the need to meet increasingly strict environmental standards incompatible with the current agricultural model.

A significant number of the petty commodity producers of the 1950s have transformed into large-scale capitalists, oriented towards global markets; three-quarters of agricultural products are destined for export. This level of production has resulted in excessive emissions, resulting in the Dutch court ordering the state to take action to reduce nitrogen emissions for its damaging effect on water, soil, and vulnerable natural areas. 

In response, the Dutch state introduced plans to, among other measures, buy out high-emitting farmers. Many of the most prominent farmers, who lead the protests are those potentially most affected: the highly industrialized, capital-dependent livestock farmers11. In other words, the historic ‘winners’ in the process of class differentiation are those who have the most to lose. This is not to suggest, however, that there are merely two types of farmers: those who have ceased farming and those who continue. Indeed, it appears that the trend of declining numbers of farmers has not come to an end.

My own family started farming in 1996 on the border between the city and the countryside, depending mostly on the tenancy of government lands. In the nearly twenty years since we have seen fourteen farms in our vicinity disappear, and more farmers are predicted to leave in the next few years, fueled by city expansions and intensification of agriculture. Only a few months ago, our family received news that we might lose access to approximately 40% of our land in the upcoming years, leaving us wondering how the farm will survive.

Many farmers are bought out by the government for city expansion, nature restoration, or for ‘emissions rights’ so other industries such as Schiphol airport can expand. In addition, farmers face increasing precarity and uncertainty in securing their livelihoods as they struggle to secure a livable income amongst increasing debts and costs. In addition, succession is proving to be difficult as a younger generation, faced with a changing agricultural landscape, decides to pursue a future outside of farming.

Few of the farmers I talk to would be surprised by my family’s story – in fact, they all have their own stories to tell. It is true that some farmers have benefited tremendously from capitalist development in the countryside for they were able to buy up the farms and land of those leaving farming and continuously expand and intensify their production and with that their profits, however, that is not the complete picture.

Being driven out of business is not the sole issue at hand. Many are, for instance, dependent on specialization and government subsidies to compete in the market, which limits their autonomy and alienates them from their land and work.

Limits to growth

The industrialization of agriculture did not only impact farmers, it has also brought about a system with major health- and environmental consequences. Industrial agriculture, especially livestock production, has far-reaching impacts on the quality of water, air, and soil, a decrease in biodiversity, increased animal suffering, and negative health implications for people living close to factory farms. The limits of growth within the industrial agricultural system, and associated negative effects, caused even Mansholt, its architect, to express his regret later on in life12.

The effects of the highly industrialized agricultural system on the environment have resulted in, among other things, the “nitrogen crises”, resulting in the proposed government plans to buy out high-emitting farmers closer to protected nature reserves. For many farmers, this represented the final blow amidst a litany of escalating pressures, uncertainties, and perceived threats.

The farmer protests, which spanned several months and saw (violent) large-scale demonstrations and blockades, attracted a variety of farmers: from large-scale, high-emitting livestock farmers to smaller-scale arable farmers as well as sympathizers such as construction workers and those employed in the agro-industry. The limits of the system were met, but rather than demanding change, farmers stood up to “protect their way of life”, and by extension, the continuation of the industrial system. A system that will, with time, cause most farms in The Netherlands to shut down.

European agriculture, Made in Holland

The transition from “No more hunger” to the current Common Agricultural Policy, has brought agro-industrial corporations billions of euros each year, extracted from Dutch farms13. It is those exact companies, together with the rhetoric of right-wing populist parties, that directly shape and influence farmers’ worldviews. Through education, research, media, and business relations, the necessity and by extension dependency of the farmers on these companies “to feed the world” is continuously reinforced.

During the protests, the companies involved in agrochemicals, meat processing, livestock feed, machinery, and animal pharmaceuticals supported the farmers through advertisements and direct financial contributions. At the same time, the Dutch government came back on its proposed policies and sought to find ways out of the agricultural deadlock through innovation and expensive buyouts rather than proposing systemic changes. A continuation of “business-as-usual” for the agro-industry, and no long-term perspective for farmers.

In a similar way, the current European policy geared towards maximizing profit and reinforcing the industrial agricultural system will inevitably meet its limits. As we see now, farmers who have faced increased pressures over the past decades have taken to the streets to express their frustrations. The Dutch case provides important insights and understanding of the mechanisms behind these protests and, I would argue, serves as a warning sign of what is ahead if the EU fails to implement a policy that brings about fundamental change.

Understanding the historic class differentiation, the financial interests of big agro companies, and the deadlock farmers find themselves in, brought about by agricultural transformation is crucial when addressing the challenges faced by farmers and revitalizing rural communities. Many parallels can be drawn between The Netherlands and the EU at large.

The financial interest of agro-industrial companies and farmer unions in upkeeping the current, highly intensive, and highly profitable industrial farming system, has resulted in not only a visible presence of such companies at the protests through monetary gifts and advertisements but also active lobbying to further erode environmental regulations, as is visible in for example the proposed pesticide ban. Lobby groups and right-wing parties mobilize on the built-up emotions and frustrations of farmers, who are locked into a model of continuous growth and an ever-dwindling income and livelihood security.

However, in contrast with the Netherlands, a significant difference is visible in the active countering of this regressive, right-wing populist agricultural movement as it has emerged across Europe. Grassroots movements such as La Via Campesina have been fighting for a food system built on food sovereignty and agroecology for decades. They did so again recently in Brussels, where they claimed the protest stage to represent small- and medium-sized farmers from across Europe.

In doing so, they gave a voice to the thousands of farmers who are experiencing the increasing pressures and precarity of their position within the industrial, capitalist food system but refuse to be swept up in right-wing populism and agro-industrial interests. These farmers instead demand a more fair, just, and green agricultural policy for Europe, where the livelihood of small and middle-scale family farms are protected from the interests of agro-industry and further capitalist exploitation.

As I write this, I am reminded of a striking image in Brussels. Large tractors with loud air horns and burning hay bales in front of a wall painting that reads The Future is Europe. A small group of farmers gathers together around a stage, braving the cold and rainy weather. Cheers go up when a banner is raised above the road, reading Food For People, Not Profit.  

If we want to build a truly sustainable and fair future for farming communities across Europe, we must not only understand the right-wing and capitalist forces at play in the current farmer’s upheaval, but more so listen to and stand in solidarity with the members of La Via Campesina. These farmers that have been fighting and struggling for decades to realize a radically different farming landscape. It is those farmers who will build the future for Europe.

Works Cited:

  1. EU-Mercosur Trade Agreement: ↩︎
  2. The European Green Deal: ↩︎
  3. Leitheiser, S., Horlings, I., Franklin, A., & Trell, E. (2022). Regeneration at a distance from the state: From radical imaginaries to alternative practices in Dutch farming. Sociologia Ruralis, 62, 669-725. doi:10.1111/soru.12403 ↩︎
  4. van den Berg, L., van Geel, H., Oppedeijk van Veen, J., & RoeteJolke Moel, S. J. (2018, August 17,). A living countryside: The land politics behind the Dutch agroecology movement. TNI. ↩︎
  5. CBS. (2014, June 26). Afname aantal boerenbedrijven zet door. Centraal Bureau voor de          Statistiek. boerenbedrijven-zet door
    Also see, CBS. (2017, February 27). Sterke schaalvergroting in de landbouw sinds 1950. Centraal Bureauvoor de Statistiek.  de landbouw-sinds-1950 an Also, CBS. (2023). Landbouw; gewassen, dieren en grondgebruik naar hoofdbedrijfstype, regio. Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek.                   nl/cijfers/detail/80783ned?dl=5F5C2 ↩︎
  6. van Grinsven, H., & Kooman, K. (2017). Dit is uw land: Het einde van een boerenparadijs.        Nederland: Uitgeverij De Kring. ↩︎
  7. Siegmann, K. A., Quaedvlieg, J., & Williams, T. (2022). Migrant work and the future of food cultivation in the Netherlands. European Journal of Migration and Law, (24), 217-240.           10.1163/15718166-12340127 ↩︎
  8. van der Ploeg, J. D. (2020). Farmers’ upheaval, climate crisis and populism. The Journal of     Peasant Studies, 47(3), 589-605. doi:10.1080/03066150.2020.1725490 ↩︎
  9. Homolová, A., Korte, L. d., & Joosten, T. (2022, December 1,). Agricultural millionaires and minimum wages: How European subsidy policy increases inequality. Follow the Money – Platform for Investigative Journalism. subsidy-farmers-billions ↩︎
  10. Joosten, T. (2023, March 25). Miljonairs op een minimum: Het inkomen van boeren onder de loep. Follow the Money – Platform for Investigative Journalism. ↩︎
  11. van der Ploeg, J. D. (2020). Farmers’ upheaval, climate crisis and populism. The Journal of     Peasant Studies, 47(3), 589-605. doi:10.1080/03066150.2020.1725490 ↩︎
  12. van Merriënboer, Johan. (2006). Mansholt, een biografie. Nederland: Uitgeverij De Boom,        Amsterdam. ↩︎
  13. Dinther, M. (2022, May 28). Terwijl de boer zwoegt, verdienen grote bedrijven goud geld aan hun          harde werk. De Volkskrant. boer-zwoegt-verdienen-grote-bedrijven-goud-geld-aan-hun-harde-werk~bff0f638/ ↩︎

Roos Saat

Roos holds an MA in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam, specializing in Agriculture, Food, Environment and Sustainability. She is a farmer and agricultural activist in The Netherlands.

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