“Unsurprisingly, just as in Sri Lanka, the Dutch announcement has created political upheaval. What is surprising is that, in the face of all this, politicians in countries like Belgium and New Zealand want to follow suit.”
As Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that.” Unfortunately, experience is often painful and occasionally fatal. Even the most foolish, if they survive, can learn from their own mistakes, but the wise learn from the mistakes of others.
Sri Lanka has made a catastrophic mistake. In 2021, during the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that his country had embarked on a “new agricultural revolution that has sustainability at its core.” Citing the dangers of overusing nitrogen fertilizers, Rajapaksa explained, “my government took firm steps to reduce imports of chemical fertilizer, and strongly encourage organic agriculture.” On July 13 of this year, President Rajapaksa fled the country, escaping to Singapore.
Last April, Rajapaksa’s government made good on that promise, imposing a nationwide ban on the importation and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and ordering the country’s 2 million farmers to go organic.
The result was brutal and swift. Against claims that organic methods can produce comparable yields to conventional farming, domestic rice production fell 20 percent in just the first six months. Sri Lanka, long self-sufficient in rice production, has been forced to import $450 million worth of rice even as domestic prices for this staple of the national diet surged by around 50 percent. The ban also devastated the nation’s tea crop, its primary export and source of foreign exchange….
Human costs have been even greater. Prior to the pandemic’s outbreak, the country had proudly achieved upper-middle-income status. Today, half a million people have sunk back into poverty.
One would think that other countries would take note of the disaster. One would be wrong. The Dutch government recently announced its plan to:
drastically reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides [which are greenhouse gases] to protect the environment, a plan that would lead to major upheavals in the Netherlands’ multibillion dollar agriculture.…
Calling it an “unavoidable transition,” the government mandated reductions in emissions of up to 70 percent in many places close to protected nature areas and as high as 95 percent in other places.
Agriculture is responsible for about 40% of nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands – mostly through the use of chemical fertilizers and from livestock-produced ammonia. Michael Shellenberger, writing in the New York Post, reports that “the government is demanding a cut in nitrogen pollution of 50% by 2030. That amount would require a livestock reduction of one-third or more and thus bankrupt many farmers.”
While Shellenberger notes that “the country produces four times more nitrogen pollution than the European average” it also produces more food than the European average:
The Netherlands is the largest exporter of meat in Europe and the second largest exporter of food overall after the United States, a remarkable feat for a nation half the size of Indiana.
Data show ammonia pollution from manure has already declined by nearly 70% since 1990. And farmers say they will continue to reduce pollution as they put in place low-cost, common-sense fixes, like diluting manure with water, injecting it into the soil and more frequently washing down barn floors.
Netherlands is something of a model for the efficient use of nitrogen fertilizer in farming. Since the early 1960s, the Netherlands has doubled its yields while using the same amount of fertilizer.
In other words, the Netherlands produces food very efficiently and, as a result, exports a lot of it. This not remarkable in a world that was, until now, largely ruled by free market ideas. Markets automatically channel production of various goods and services to individuals with a comparative advantage in providing them. Interfering in the market – that is, in the free exchange of goods and services between people – will shift production to nations that are less efficient and that will produce more pollution per unit of food. This is the exact opposite of what environmentalists – who claim to “think globally” – say they want.
Unsurprisingly, just as in Sri Lanka, the Dutch announcement has created political upheaval. What is surprising is that, in the face of all this, politicians in countries like Belgium and New Zealand want to follow suit. Politicians seem to be lining up to enroll in the school of experience. Former president Rajapaksa may soon have company in Singapore.