Starting in the ’90s, Dutch agricultural laws began paving the way for what experts describe as the Dutch Green Evolution in organic farming. But now, Brexit is posing a serious threat to the green dream.
By Gabriele Cruciata
Arjen Boer became passionate about farming as a young child on his parents’ farm. “I give them life and love, and they’re grateful to me,” he says while feeding some of the 165 cows he takes care of together with his wife Margriet at their organic farm in Enumatil, a village of 300 inhabitants seven kilometres west of the city of Groningen.
For the past 40 years, the Boers have run one of the Netherlands’ 1,687 organic farms. “We started this [organic] business in 1990 as we got sick of intensive production. We wanted our products to be better in terms of quality and animal rights,” says Margriet.
Arjen and Margriet benefited from what experts call the Dutch Green Revolution, a wave of laws that began to recast the Netherlands’ food production in the mid-90s. Since then, the motto for organic famers has been “twice as much food using half as many resources” – but now, Brexit might put everything at risk.
Second largest food trader
In fact, despite being a small country, in recent decades, The Netherlands has become the second largest food trader at a global level following the United States. Technology and eco-friendly production techniques are the cornerstones of this revolution and may serve as an example of what the future of world-wide agriculture will look like on a more populated planet.
Organic farming is still a growing sector in the Netherland, as the steady increase of biological companies shows. But the United Kingdom is the third most important trading partner for the Dutch. Last October, the Dutch Court of Audit stated a no-deal Brexit would cost the Netherland 2.3 billion euros through 2023. “The British decision to quit the European Union is turning into a disaster, lots of us will stand to lose” says Klaas Johan Osinga, a spokesperson from LTO, the most powerful lobby organization for Dutch farmers. “A no-deal exit will result in a huge problem for our 8.6 billion euros’ worth of agricultural exports to the UK.”
Osinga says that “the only good news we have is that at the moment, Brexit is not damaging our Green Revolution. The pressure to be efficient is only increasing because of trade barriers.” Nevertheless, checkpoints at the British gates will most luckily result in longer queues that will affect Dutch perishable items’ quality, mainly dairy products, meat and ornamental trees and plants. In an episode of The Northern Times’ podcast Econ 050, economist Bart Los asserted that these industries “will be hit hardest than others” in case of a no-deal Brexit.
“Importers of Dutch products might have to pay tariffs, meaning becoming less competitive,” Los says. Professor Los and other economists have developed an index to measure the percentage value added reduction in an industry if all borders between EU countries and the UK were to close entirely without any substitution processes. Even if that value is around four percent for the wider Dutch economy, the agricultural and food production industries would respectively face a reduction of seven and eight percent.
According to an OECD report, the agriculture, vegetables, fruits and processed foods sectors will record a production fall of two percent or greater, while the meat sector will face a 9.1 percent production decrease.
Organic farms will not be entirely spared, but Arjen and Margriet have faith in the future. “Our core business is focused on the local market” they say. “We know we will be affected by Brexit, but only indirectly, and our hope is this won’t vaporize all the effort we organic farmers put into our everyday activities for the environment and high-quality products.”
More than 90 percent of their milk and meat production is intended for local people and restaurants, but not all of their colleagues are so lucky. According to the LTO data, half of Dutch organic products are exported and will be directly affected by the introduction of taxes and checkpoints, posting a significant potential threat to the Dutch vision of future-oriented agriculture.