The Nitrogen Crisis: How Dutch Farmers’ Protests Expose a Deepening Political Divide

The Netherlands’ struggle to address nitrogen emissions and its impact on farmers reveals a complex web of political, environmental, and societal challenges.

In October 2019, the Netherlands witnessed a historic traffic jam as over 2,000 tractors rolled through the country’s highways, causing over 1,000km of backups. The farmers were protesting against proposed measures to reduce nitrogen emissions, which would require the closure of livestock farms. This event marked the beginning of the “nitrogen crisis” in the country, a multifaceted issue that has become a flashpoint for political, environmental, and social tensions. The crisis has emboldened far-right groups, sparked conspiracy theories, and even attracted attention from international figures like Donald Trump. As the Dutch government grapples with finding a solution, the consequences of ignoring urgent environmental problems and the growing divide between urban and rural communities become increasingly apparent.

The Origins of the Nitrogen Crisis

The nitrogen crisis in the Netherlands can be traced back to a ruling by the country’s highest administrative court in 2019. The court declared that the government’s nitrogen permits system was failing to protect specially protected nature reserves within its borders. This ruling went largely unnoticed at the time, but it set the stage for the subsequent turmoil. The advisory committee’s report, chaired by former deputy prime minister Johan Remkes, further emphasized the need for “drastic measures” to reduce nitrogen emissions, with agriculture being the largest contributor.

Farmers’ Anger and Growing Discontent

The proposed measures to reduce nitrogen emissions struck a nerve with Dutch farmers, who felt they were being unfairly targeted. Many farmers had already made significant efforts to reduce their nitrogen emissions through technological advancements. They felt betrayed by the government’s sudden call for buyouts and farm closures. The protests that followed the initial tractor demonstration grew increasingly violent, with far-right groups seizing the opportunity to push their own agendas. The discontent among farmers has fueled the rise of right-leaning political parties, which are now polling well in rural areas.

The Environmental Impact of Nitrogen

Nitrogen, while abundant in the Earth’s atmosphere, becomes a serious pollutant when it reacts with other elements. Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and intensive livestock farming, have significantly increased nitrogen emissions. The excessive use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers and concentrated proteins in livestock feed has led to ammonia emissions, which contribute to air and water pollution. The cascading effects of nitrogen pollution, such as decreased oxygen levels in water and the disruption of ecosystems, have far-reaching consequences for both the environment and human health.

The Struggles of Dutch Farmers

Dutch farmers find themselves caught between environmental concerns and economic pressures. The government’s proposed buyout program offers farmers a way out, but it also means giving up their livelihoods and erasing their life’s work. The uncertainty surrounding the future of farming in the Netherlands has left many farmers feeling trapped and betrayed. While technological advancements and alternative farming practices offer potential solutions, they are seen by some as mere band-aids for a much deeper problem.

Political Consequences and the Road Ahead

The mishandling of the nitrogen crisis by the Dutch government has had far-reaching political consequences. Far-right groups have capitalized on the discontent among farmers, using the issue to push their own divisive agendas. The crisis has also exposed the growing divide between urban and rural communities in the Netherlands. As the country heads into a general election, the outcome may be determined by the political discontent that has emerged from the nitrogen crisis. The next government will face the challenge of finding effective solutions to urgent environmental problems while also addressing the economic and social concerns of farmers and rural communities.


The nitrogen crisis in the Netherlands serves as a cautionary tale for policymakers worldwide. Ignoring urgent environmental problems in favor of appeasing powerful interest groups can lead to a deepening divide between urban and rural communities. The Dutch government’s failure to develop effective political solutions to the nitrogen issue has given rise to political turmoil and emboldened far-right groups. As other countries with similar nitrogen emissions face the need for action, they must learn from the Dutch experience and find ways to address environmental challenges while also considering the economic and social implications. The consequences of inaction are not only environmental but also political, with the potential for social unrest and a breakdown of trust in the government.






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