Intense internal dialogue about nitrogen

The nitrogen crisis affects not only farmers but also WUR experts.
Symbolen Because of the explosive nature of the topic, Resource does not reveal any names. Photo Mika Baumeister – Unsplash

Frustration, grief and deeply felt concerns. Less than a week after farmers and citizens had a good talk, Impulse once again formed the backdrop for a dialogue about nitrogen. This time, for WUR employees and at the initiative of Marketing & Communication and Wageningen Dialogues. The goal is to open an internal dialogue about urgent issues that may sometimes cause a divide. It was an intense discourse.

One of the issues that were brought to the table is the despair about WUR’s position in the political and societal debate on nitrogen. Several scientists reported they feel very involved in the nitrogen issue and are proud of being able to contribute to finding the much-needed answers. But isn’t WUR showing too much restraint in offering its expertise and insights? ‘We have been studying these issues so intensively and for so long. We know what the possible solutions are. Why aren’t we more diligent in conveying our insights? Is it a lack of courage or energy? Or maybe just a matter of finding the right words?’ a researcher wondered.

The situation is dramatic. But as a scientist, still worth getting up for in the mornings.

Not everyone agreed that WUR was too restrained. ‘Broadcasting is only useful if people are willing to listen. As scientists, we present knowledge. It is up to politicians and the market to determine the consequences.’ And another issue: ‘I carefully consider what I share. I try to avoid emotions and opinions in an effort to prevent tractor protests on our campus or at scientists’ homes.’

An issue that was also discussed is the fact that WUR is often accused of a lack of impartiality. Depending on who you talk to, WUR is seen as too much on the side of the government, the farmers, or nature. This is reflected in individual researchers. ‘I consider myself and my work as pro-farmers. Still, as a Wageningen researcher, I get called out for not having an upside-down flag outside my home’, says a Livestock researcher. The same, but in the opposite direction, applies to those who work within the ecological and organic domain: they are treated with suspicion due to the alleged narrow ties between WUR and the agro-industry.

Past the eleventh hour

And that hurts, particularly when nitrogen is concerned. ‘It takes the focus away from the essence, while the Netherlands is racing towards a future we really do not want’, one researcher underscored. ‘Where nature is concerned, we are past the eleventh hour’, a colleague vehemently agreed. Someone else added: ‘The destruction of nature makes me really sad. But I also understand the desperation the farmers feel.’

I fear we have yet to hit rock bottom: the social polemic must first become even more intense

Whether we can escape the deadlock? The Impulse group was doubtful. ‘I fear we have yet to hit rock bottom: the social polemic must first become even more intense until the situation has become so hopeless that there is no alternative but to come closer together. Perhaps this is unavoidable. To quote Einstein: problems cannot be solved within the same mindset that caused them.’


A follow-up to the dialogue is to be held on 27 September and 26 October. The dialogue will then delve deeper into the action perspectives. Because, despite the worried tone that dominated this session, there must be action options. To quote one of the participants: ‘The situation is dramatic. But, as a scientist, it is still worth waking up for every morning.’

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