Bridging the nitrogen divide: ‘just a good conversation’

An initiative to try and defuse the polarization around nitrogen attracted more than 100 participants.
De gespreksleiding van het goede stikstofgesprek From the left right: Joris Lohman, Geertjan Kloosterboer and Hans van der Steeg. Photo Marieke Enter

It was to be ‘just a good conversation’ about agriculture, nature and nitrogen, without rows or recriminations. The initiative came from FoodHub founder Joris Lohman and dairy farmer Geertjan Kloosterboer, after this thorny subject threatened to drive a wedge between even them – they had known each other for years.

The original idea of ‘10 or so people around a kitchen table’ soon assumed greater proportions. WUR spontaneously offered space at Impulse, where about 100 people involved in the food system came together on Thursday evening. There were farmers, nature people, researchers, media and other interested parties – and they ranged from the traditional to the fervently green.

No ‘yes buts’

And it was a good conversation, in the sense that everyone listened attentively to each other, there were no ‘yes buts’ and no one left the building with a face like thunder. Nor was there any bickering about facts and alternative facts, as often happens on this topic – the persistent tendency that Kloosterboer described as: ‘Your science is wrong, I have better science’.

So none of that went on. But those who were secretly hoping for a way out of the nitrogen impasse (an expectation Lohman and Kloosterboer had sought to temper beforehand by making clear the evening would consist of a good conversation and nothing more) had to conclude that there was no sign of that. There was no lack of interesting input, though. Various perspectives were aired during the discussion, which was led by Radio 1 presenter Hans van der Steeg, at the invitation of the initiators.

Just give farmers some kind of basic income for ecological services

There was, for example, a historical perspective on the agricultural transition: ‘agriculture has become too one-sidedly focused on food production and has forgotten that it was once all about recycling nutrients.’ And a business perspective: ‘our only earning power is in the products that leave our premises, not in green and blue services’. Ecological: ‘under my microscope I see how regenerative agriculture improves soil quality’. Socio-economic: ‘just give farmers some kind of basic income for those ecological services’. And not to be forgotten, the societal perspective: ‘what do people know about agriculture these days? If I say for a joke that I am busy harvesting potatoes in April, a lot of people will believe me!’

Forward thinkers

And yet there was no real prospect of a way out, noted both Lohman and Kloosterboer. ‘Even with the pioneers we have here, there is a lot of discussion of the same issues’, the FoodHub chairman commented in his closing speech: import and export, extensification, is organic farming good or bad? ‘But we’ve been talking about these things for four years. I think it is time that we abandoned this ritual dance and really thought about what we want to achieve – as a society. Because this is not just an agricultural issue; the discontent is everywhere in the Netherlands. We need to take a broader view, including as representatives of opposing standpoints. If we have got that process off to a start tonight, I’m satisfied.’

Have a beer

Kloosterboer’s closing question to those present as to whether the evening had been in vain, or might actually have been a positive experience, was met with loud applause. ‘So many people, so many opinions – but if we keep talking to each other like this, we will get somewhere’, he concluded. Or as one of those present tweeted afterwards: ‘After this conversation, a farmer and another citizen can have a beer together again. Politicians could learn something from this.’

Despite having announced that this was a one-off evening, Lohman and Kloosterboer did say they are considering a follow-up. How, where, and what form it might take is not yet known.

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