Dutch farmers revisit ancient techniques as they adapt to climate change

Rivers are given space to flood but scientists warn the country needs to rethink its entire agricultural model

An aerial picture of a submerged area near Roosteren, the Netherlands, after the Meuse river burst its banks. Heavy rainfall has led to floods in various parts of the Netherlands and central Europe. EPA
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In the flat agricultural plains of the southern Brabant province of the Netherlands, a handful of farms catch the eye.

Eight cattle barns and houses stand six metres above potato fields and grasslands. The land around them, locally known as a polder, has been reclaimed from the river.

Living on artificial mounds to avoid floods is a thousand-year-old technique that had stopped being used in the Netherlands when it started building dykes on a large scale roughly 1000 years ago.

Today, with climate change and recurring extreme weather events, moving to higher ground has become a popular concept.

“We can still learn from the past,” said Barend Pilgrim, spokesman at the water authority of the Brabant Delta region.

But as the Dutch government and a part of the public bicker over how to lower harmful emissions to respect the EU’s goal to become carbon neutral by 2050, scientists said the Netherlands would have to do more if it hopes to survive in its current form in the coming centuries.

The country’s highly productive farming sector is at a crossroads and decisions made in the coming years will affect generations to come.

In Overdiepse Polder, cattle raiser Nol Hooijmaijers, 72, has witnessed first hand the government’s attempts to adapt to climate change.

Mr Hooijmaijers was one of eight farmers who decided to stay when the Dutch state chose the area, which was hit by two devastating floods in the 1990s, to make up part of a nationwide project called “Room for the River”. Ten other farmers decided to move elsewhere or stop farming altogether.

The project in Overdiepse Polder aims to preserve the lives of hundreds of thousands of city dwellers living upstream by opening flat farmland for the river to flood.

Most of the polder's trees were uprooted. Grass and crops must be kept at a height no more than 30 centimetres tall during the winter - when floods are expected - for the river to spill over freely.

A heavily subsidised move

Despite being generously compensated by the state, farmers who stayed had to accept a change in lifestyle.

Their old low-lying farms were demolished and they then built new houses on top of artificial mounds, paid for and designed by the government to last for 100 years.

In the case of a flood, they will be warned in advance and will be compensated for lost crops.

Farmers who chose to leave also received compensation for their old farms.

As Mr Hooijmaijers watched the canal that is several hundred metres away, he said he would like to see the polder covered with water once in his life, “to have proof that it was all worth it”.

He believes that his new farm, which was built on land owned by his grandfather and currently houses 120 dairy cows and 60 calves, is there to last.

“The elevated mound is so high that the water will never reach it,” he said.

Decisions that will affect how humans live in the next century will be defined by the level of emissions over the next 10 or 20 years.
Maarten Kleinhans, professor of geosciences at Utrecht University

It is important to remember that the €80 million ($78.2m) project was completed to save lives and billions of euros in potential damage upstream in densely populated areas, not for the benefit of a limited number of farmers, said Simon Hofstra, project manager at the water authority of the Brabant Delta region.

“We realised that we had claimed too much land near the rivers for urban and agricultural use,” he told The National. "Rivers didn't have enough space anymore in times of high water."

But the farmers' move in Overdiepse Polder, which took over a decade, was also possible because the population the farms were relatively new — none had been built before 1970, said Mr Hofstra.

“All the farms were the same age. There was no great history," he said.

"On the other hand, the farmers knew that inevitable future modernisation would entail scaling up the farms. That was only possible if some farmers left the polder, and the project gave them this opportunity," he added.

Mr Hooijmaijers prefers the new farm to the old one and has handed over management to his son.

“We were able to start from scratch, and we now have a new farm with all the latest technologies,” he said.

The Overdiepse Polder project, which has attracted significant media attention in the past years, has been branded as representing successful co-operation between farmers and the government to protect the region’s population from climate change.

It reflects widespread pride in Dutch water-management techniques, technological know-how and efficient farming.

The Netherlands is the second-largest agricultural exporter in the world after the US.

But scientists warn that looks can be deceiving. Holland’s 900-year-old water management techniques, which involve pumping out or draining water from the land, are also the cause of soil subsidence, or the lowering of the level of the land relative to the sea.

Imported nitrogen-rich livestock feed

It remains unclear how long the Netherlands can fight climate change with ingenuity.

Some believe the country needs to entirely rethink its economic model of intensive farming, which is based largely on importing nitrogen-rich livestock feed from abroad, mostly from South America, for cattle that are then slaughtered for export.

The nitrogen remains trapped in manure, pollutes the air, rivers and soil, and contributes to high levels of emissions that warm the planet and hasten the melting of polar ice caps.

Should sea levels rise by more than two metres, it will be very hard to protect the lower half of the Netherlands against floods from the sea and rivers, warned Maarten Kleinhans, professor of geosciences at Utrecht University.

“Decisions that will affect how humans live in the next century will be defined by the level of emissions over the next 10 or 20 years. That is why scientists keep using the words 'tipping point'. Then you can build all kinds of mounds for houses but it is not going to help,” he said.

“Nitrogen is only one example of all the stuff that goes into the atmosphere and groundwater, and is really a serious problem that shows how hard it is to accomplish serious change.”

Others said innovation is the way forward and that food production should not be cut.

Dutch farmers should not be blamed for years of bad government policies, said Sieta van Keimpema, board member and representative of the Farmers Defence Force, which was active in widespread protests this summer against the government.

The backlash, which involved farmers dumping manure and trash on motorways this summer, was aimed at the state’s decision to halve nitrogen and ammonia emissions by 2030.

That would mean a 30 per cent reduction in Dutch livestock.

Ms Keimpema believes that the government wants farms to close so that it can build more houses for the country's growing population.

“You can build a lot of houses and cut down agriculture but that doesn’t make you more sustainable,” she said.

There are other important polluters, she highlighted, such as cars, aviation and industry, which have not been asked to slash emissions in the same way as farmers have.

A model that needs changing

Agriculture experts such as Simon Oosting, professor and chairman of animal production systems at Wageningen University, believe that a different, more sustainable, agriculture is possible for Dutch farmers.

But such a transition requires government support that is currently lacking.

“If a farmer wants a loan at a bank, there is way more chance he will get it if it is to make his farm three times bigger than if he wants to convert to organic agriculture,” said Mr Oosting. “That is because support goes towards intensification.”

“Everybody realises that things can’t go on like they are,” he said. “Waiting another 10 years will only make things worse.”

The government appointed a mediator, Johan Remkes, who last month suggested in a report that the state buy out 600 of the country’s most polluting industries, including in the agriculture sector.

Mr Oosting fears it could end up in a deadlock.

The debate is of major concern for farmers all over the country, including in Overdiepse Polder.

Mr Hooijmaijers said the government’s emission-reduction aims were “impossible” and “ridiculous”.

But he also believes that he will inevitably have to reduce his number of cows and is making efforts at making his farm circular.

This means that eventually animals should be fed from his own land without having to import animal feed, with the number of animals also mechanically reduced.

Circular farming is gaining momentum across the country, said Mr Oosting. Combined with the current energy crisis, he hopes pressure to lower emissions will help Dutch agriculture to become less intensive.

“It would mean we would export less, but we would have lower internal costs,” he said. “It is quite a transition. What is hard is to get over the threshold.”

Mr Kleinhans, from Utrecht University, agreed.

The efficiency of Dutch farmers in producing cheap meat for export, with government encouragement, has been poisoning the environment for decades.

“If, at some point, you really want to be serious about mitigating climate change, we need to stop all this transportation. We need to stop the overconsumption of meat and flying ourselves all over the place,” he said.

“If we ignore that problem, then we contribute to this progression towards these tipping points that will eventually lead to the complete drowning of the lower half of the country.”

The issue is that no one wants to be told to stop eating cheap meat, said Mr Kleinhans.

Farmers should ultimately blame the Dutch public that voted for politicians who encouraged intensive farmers to expand, not the current government that decided to enforce European legislation.

“Voters have been voting for parties that didn’t want to change anything, and now we are getting the sum of all the issues. That is the real problem,” said Mr Kleinhans.

Updated: November 05, 2022, 9:50 AM