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How Dutch farmers became the center of a global right-wing culture war

Radicalized by conspiracy theories, some activists see the farmers in the Netherlands as the latest victims of an assault on Western civilization itself.
Erik Luiten, 52, is a dairy farmer and farmers' rights activist in the village of Aalten, in the east of the Netherlands near the German border.
Erik Luiten, 52, is a dairy farmer and farmers' rights activist in the village of Aalten, in the east of the Netherlands near the German border.Alexey Yurenev for NBC News

AALTEN, The Netherlands — Erik Luiten seems an unlikely person to be fighting a conspiracy to destroy Western society.

The tall, affable and soft-spoken man is more likely found tending to 150 dairy cows at his farm in the windswept green flatness of the eastern Netherlands. A sixth-generation farmer on this land, he knows the name of each cow and that of its parents. The vast barn echoes to pop classics, including “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley. 

“There has been research on what music cows like best,” he said with a knowing grin, “and it’s not classical.”

Luiten, 52, is a national organizer in a campaign to stop Dutch government plans to potentially shut thousands of farms in order to reduce harmful nitrogen emissions by half by 2030 — a plan that critics say will change the country’s huge agriculture industry forever.

Tractors have blocked highways and surrounded government buildings as part of a campaign that has huge public support. The three-year-old Farmer-Citizen Movement, known by its Dutch abbreviation BBB, is now one of the most popular in the country, according to opinion polls.

This grassroots protest movement has been driven largely by ordinary farmers like Luiten and their supporters, but it has another element: the far-right. Radicalized by the opposition to strict Covid measures and spurred on by conspiracy theories about “globalists” dismantling national democracies and importing nonwhite immigrants to majority-white countries, these activists see the farmers as the latest victims of an assault on Western civilization itself. 

As conspiracy-driven Telegram groups, right-wing commentators and some lawmakers would baselessly put it, Dutch farms are being shut down to make space for asylum-seekers. Right-wing populists around the world have offered their support for the farmers’ stand, including former President Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen and Poland’s far-right populist government.

But, in reality, many Dutch farmers are just trying to make a living.

The A1 motorway stretching east from the Dutch capital, Amsterdam, to the remote rural heart of the country is littered with upside-down flags. Supporters stand on highway bridges every night waving the inverted tricolor as a symbol of defiance against an unpopular government and to call for an end to the nitrogen plan. Passing drivers honk in agreement.

Protesters gather over the A1 motorway in support of local farmers as the Dutch government plans measures to reduce nitrogen emissions.
Protesters gather over the A1 motorway in support of local farmers as the Dutch government plans measures to reduce nitrogen emissions. Alexey Yurenev for NBC News

In June, Luiten drove a tractor in a slow-motion convoy across almost the entire Netherlands to join a protest organizers claim was attended by up to 60,000. He set off at midnight, arriving 11 hours later.

But there is little sign of militancy or opposition to a new world order near the German border at Luiten’s farm, where an automated milking machine shows the name, weight and projected daily milk yield of each animal — a Dutch invention now standard across dairy farming. This oddly quiet, high-tech operation can be managed by just him and his wife.

Farms like his across the country could soon shut down.

Livestock manure reacts with urine to generate large amounts of ammonia — which can cause acidification of soil and water, a big threat to biodiversity, and emit pungent smell — as well as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. 

In 2019, the European Union’s top court and the Dutch Council of State, the country’s top administrative court and legislative advisory body,  ruled that the Netherlands had breached E.U. environmental standards by failing to ensure they were met in 162 protected nature areas.

The real fury began earlier this year when the Dutch Department for Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality released a map showing which areas had to reduce their emissions and by how much — in some areas, this meant 95% of farming activity must be stopped within a year. The Dutch farming lobby group LTO estimates there are nearly 54,000 agricultural businesses across the country with exports totaling 94.5 billion euros ($99.75 billion) in 2019.

The radical Farmers Defense Force, which experts described as a far-right group, has said it would not accept any buyouts and promised further protests.

“Farmers aren’t against nature, we live in nature, we depend on nature and we want to preserve it,” Luiten said, sitting in his kitchen dotted with calendars, photos and coffee cups featuring cows. “But we need to be realistic. In a country this small, with this much activity, it’s not realistic to have that much nature — you have to choose,” he said, alluding to the problem of land use in a country that is only a little larger than Maryland.  

Luiten has to cut 12% off his farm’s activity, which would mean a reduction in livestock and a very slim profit margin in the future, but he thinks he can survive.

Dairy cows at a farm in the village of Oldetrijne in Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands.
Dairy cows at a farm in the village of Oldetrijne in Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands.Alexey Yurenev for NBC News

Talks between the government and farmers groups have continued, but with no breakthrough. On Nov. 25, the Dutch government said it would adopt measures set out in a report from former deputy prime minister Johan Remkes — who has been mediating between the government and the farmers — in which high-emission farms would have to radically reduce emissions, move or shut within a year or face compulsory purchase. The government said it would have this “conversation” with 2,000 to 3,000 businesses.

“We are doing this to restore our nature, which is in really bad shape, and to get stalled permits moving. We want to do this approach with an eye for the human dimension and carefully,” Lisanne de Roos, a press officer for the minister for nature and nitrogen policy, said via email.

“The retiring entrepreneurs will receive a very attractive scheme that is above competitive prices,” she added.

Dutch Facebook and Telegram groups, often with “Freedom” in their names, post memes and videos almost daily arguing that the farmers movement is opposing the “great reset” — a supposed attempt to remake the world into a single economic-political bloc to the detriment of national identities.

Klokkenluiders voor Vrijheid (meaning whistleblowers for freedom, which has 87,000 subscribers) shared a video in November featuring David Icke, a British conspiracy theorist, arguing that Dutch farms are being shut down so the government can restrict food supply and more easily coerce and control the population.

Icke said Nov. 4 that the Dutch government banned him from entering the Netherlands to appear at a rally, posting a letter from the Department of Justice on his website.

The theory has definite international resonance. It has featured on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and was given oxygen by the actor Russell Brand on his YouTube channel, which has 6 million subscribers. The theory has echoes of the racist great replacement theory, which has been cited by right-wing  mass shooters in their manifestos from New Zealand to El Paso, Texas.

Conspiracy theories tend to begin reacting to a specific, complex problem, but then begin to encompass all of society’s problems, especially if there is no other explanation being offered.

“Political scientists call it issue expansion. It’s a small issue, but it expands because of vicious circles and before you know it, it’s all about the great reset,” Arjen Boin, an expert in social movements from Leiden University in the Netherlands, said by phone.

At one protest in Amsterdam in July, an upside down Dutch national flag, the symbol of the farmers’ struggle but also of a wider anti-government “freedom” movement, was emblazoned with the slogan: “Dutch evicted for Ukrainians? Government? Guilty.” 

Luiten is, however, bemused by the idea this is a global fight for Western freedom and that his land could be bought and used to house asylum-seekers. Aside from that, “it doesn’t make sense to build houses in the middle of nowhere,” he adds.

Erik Luiten, 52, is a dairy farmer and farmers' rights activist in the village of Aalten, in the east of the Netherlands.
Erik Luiten, 52, is a dairy farmer and farmers' rights activist in the village of Aalten, in the east of the Netherlands.Alexey Yurenev for NBC News

He is reluctant to criticize extremist groups for supporting the farmers, but is clear there is a limit to the movement’s tolerance.

“The right-wing side, with the whole World Economic Forum discussion, a lot of farmers believe it. So, there’s a lot of crossover support. I’m not here to judge which is right or wrong, I’m happy there are people fighting with us.

“When it’s getting violent, we have to take care we’re not getting into a situation we don’t want to get into.”

The Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality told NBC News it had “no choice” but to continue with its plans.

“Nature is under pressure, and we need to act swiftly to restore it,” de Roos said, adding that there was a significant assistance package on the table to help farmers change their methods or leave their farms.

Some see the government’s farming plan as a direct challenge to a traditional industry, which inspires national pride of near-mythic proportions. And as with protests against pandemic lockdowns, curfews and Covid passports across Europe, extremists have used the widespread sympathy for the movement to boost their attention and support.

“It lends itself to the heroic, because the farmer is a mythical expression of local against a far-away elite somewhere in these glassy towers making policies that nobody understands,” Boin said.

There are broadly two far-right groups in the farmers movement, according to Cas Mudde, a Dutch expert on radical extremism at the University of Georgia. There’s the Farmers Defense Force, “who are at the heart of the most radical and violent actions.”

And there’s the “external” far-right actors, such as the Forum For Democracy (FvD) party, “which tried to use the farmers for their broader political struggle,” and whose leadership is largely upper middle-class and urban and has no ideological or personal ties to the farming community, he said.

“The far-right can profit from populist opposition to almost any such an issue, but its bread and butter is nativism, which is why they try to relate all issues to immigration,” Mudde said via email.

The Farmers Defense Force didn’t respond to a request for comment. However, Thierry Baudet, a lawmaker and leader of the FvD party, agreed to talk.

“This is about a globalist takeover,” he said by phone. “This was already manifested in the E.U. project, but also in the ongoing support for mass migration and the philosophy that is cherished by most people in the elite circles, that we are all travelers anyway, we’re all migrants anyway.”

Farms like Luiten's across the Netherlands could soon shut down.
Farms like Luiten's across the Netherlands could soon shut down.Alexey Yurenev for NBC News

Baudet links the farmers movement to the one that emerged to oppose pandemic measures. A climate change skeptic, he says there is no environmental reason to reduce nitrogen.

He is in no doubt that the end result of this will be the removal of farms to make way for housing for immigrants.

“Oh, yeah, definitely. That’s very obvious,” Baudet said. “They think the Netherlands should be a sort of tri-state New York of a federal Europe. That’s the long-term vision that they have.”

The “great reset” phrase comes from a World Economic Forum summit in 2020 where the forum and Britain’s King Charles III, then the Prince of Wales, launched a program designed to boost innovation and collaboration.

But is the political far-right taking advantage of farmers’ very real problems to further its own long-held beliefs about national and global governance? 

“I wouldn’t know how I would be taking advantage in an insincere way, I’m just pointing out that this is precisely part of the trends that I’ve been trying to oppose for many years, “ Baudet said.

The Netherlands is second only to the United States in global agricultural exports, a staggering achievement for a country with a surface area about 16,000 square miles, much of it reclaimed from the sea. At just 0.42% the size of the U.S, the outline of the Netherlands would fit inside Ohio.

In the northern province of Friesland, Trienke Elshoff-Witteveen runs what the industry’s critics would call a “megafarm,” her 75 meter-long (246ft) barn home to some 250 Frisian-Holstein cows.

Trienke Elshof-Witteveen, 54, a dairy farmer in the village of Oldetrijne in Friesland.
Trienke Elshof-Witteveen, 54, a dairy farmer in the village of Oldetrijne in Friesland.Alexey Yurenev for NBC News

The animals are grazing inside because the dry summer has been unkind to the grass. An ear tag reveals one is called Rocky; its father was Solero. Two wind turbines and solar panels on the barn’s roof generate almost all the farm’s energy needs.

Elshoff-Witteveen, 54, explains in stereotypical Dutch directness that she too has thought of leaving the farm, possibly moving to Denmark or Canada. 

“If we have to leave, I don’t think there is a future for a lot of farms in the Netherlands. We don’t think about it too much because we don’t want to leave. We have two sons who want to take over and go further with this farm,” she said.

Also a regional official for LTO, the national farmers union, Elshoff-Witteveen has been working on the farm since 1998; her parents before her since 1982. She is convinced the government plans are wrong and disproportionate.  “It’s too fast, too costly, they can’t do it,” she said.

She argues that farmers can reduce much of the nitrogen emissions by changing the way they feed cattle and manage waste — but not without some financial help. 

But Elshoff-Wittevee is too busy running a business to think very much about a great reset. Like many others, she sees the militancy as an extension of public unrest about Covid restrictions.

“Conspiracy theories? I don’t believe that but there are a lot of farmers who do,” she said.

“It started with Covid. A lot of people were mad about how the government was telling them they weren’t allowed to do this, not allowed to do that. I think that anger is still there,” she said.

Caroline van der Plas is the founder and the sole lawmaker of the Farmer-Citizen Movement. Formed in 2019, it would have the second most seats in Parliament if a general election was called now, according to opinion polls.

“There’s a lot going on in Holland. We have the nitrogen crisis, we have the housing crisis, we have the asylum crisis, energy crisis. There’s so much going on and so many people are worried and there’s a feeling they are not being taken seriously enough,” she says.

A worker at a farm in the village of Aalten, in the east of the Netherlands near the German border.
A worker at a farm in the village of Aalten, in the east of the Netherlands near the German border.Alexey Yurenev for NBC News

Van der Plaas rejected the idea that farms are being removed to make way for immigrants and wasn’t entirely pleased by Le Pen’s and Trump’s vocal support for her movement. “I mean thanks, but let us go back to work here and solve the problems.”

The reasons for such widespread support of the farmers isn’t ideological, she said.

People in the Netherlands view the farmers “as hard-working people: They are always working, they make the food, they take care of the landscape. Holland is a very dense country and much of it is agricultural, green and rural.

“There are a lot of villages where people live and work alongside farmers. The silent majority is now speaking in favor of the farmers.”