If you haven't given much thought to nitrogen, you would until recently have been in the majority. The gas was the consideration of chemists, climate scientists, and a few policymakers. Yet talk of this topic has now exploded onto national agendas and marked elections after becoming the target of EU legislation to reduce pollution.
Anyone around Brussels two weeks ago could hardly have missed the procession of 2,700 tractors that gridlocked the city. What might have been a novel sight for urbanites was for those taking part a serious protest against a policy that will severely curtail agricultural practices in Flanders.
The matter divided the regional government and although an agreement was subsequently reached that allowed governing parties to save face, the issue hasn't actually been resolved (many farmers would only settle if it's dropped entirely, which seems unlikely). In short, the proposed measures to cut emissions will entail closing the most polluting farms – an unpopular programme in a region whose identity is largely in the fields.
The same debate has animated Dutch voters, with yesterday seeing the highest turnout in 30 years as the Netherlands held regional elections. In a major show of dissatisfaction with the direction of the current administration, voters mobilised behind the three-year-old BBB party, a staunchly agrarian group that has been vociferous in its criticism of efforts to clamp down on nitrogen emissions.
Whilst I'll save the details for another day, the gravity of this tectonic success will reverberate beyond the Netherlands. Indeed, the nation's farming community has long been held up by far-right provocateurs as a victim of liberal left-wing conspirators weaponising an environmental agenda. Steve Bannon proclaimed that “The Dutch farmers’ fight is our fight” as he whipped up pro-Trump anti-establishment fervour.
The government proposals – both in Belgium and the Netherlands – to (generously) compensate farmers whose practices are deemed too polluting to be brought within limits have been portrayed by polemicists as part of a "great replacement conspiracy" to grab land and turf-out native populations.
With Belgian elections taking place next year, expect to hear plenty more on this as nitrogen becomes the latest political battleground.
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