(Bloomberg) -- It took an existential threat to turn a fifth-generation dairy farmer into an anti-government protester. 

Bart Kooijman raises 120 cows on 50 hectares in western Holland. If authorities push ahead with plans to halve nitrogen emissions from agriculture by 2030, his could be among thousands of farms that will have to shrink or close.

In an attempt to quell a summer of fury, which saw farmers setting hay bales ablaze and dumping manure on motorways, the government said in November it would buy out as many as 3,000 of the biggest emitters in a voluntary one-time offer, setting aside €24.3 billion ($25.6 billion) to fund the transition. Those who refuse will be forced out of business.

“We don’t want to make fires or block roads but if we do nothing, it’s over,” says Kooijman, a father of two. “We’ll just get kicked off the land.” 

Intensive farming — and decades of official inaction — have devastated biodiversity in the Netherlands, forcing the government to impose drastic measures. But the Dutch crisis serves as a cautionary tale for governments the world over as a year of record drought, flood and fire forces us to reckon with the way we produce the most essential of goods: food.

While it’s one of the biggest victims of more extreme weather, agriculture is also a major climate offender. From farm to fork, the food system generates about 31% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Cows and sheep emit planet-warming methane simply by digesting food; their manure and urine is a source of nitrogen oxide which, in large volumes, throws ecosystems off kilter. Too many fertilizers and pesticides are poisoning soils and water, while farmers are clearing ever-larger expanses of rainforest for cattle or monoculture, destroying complex systems that shelter wildlife and regulate the Earth’s temperature. 

Agricultural emissions rose 14% between 2000 and 2018, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. If action isn’t taken fast, researchers estimate that food-related emissions alone would push the Earth past 1.5C of warming that world leaders set as a target in the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

So after focusing for years on fossil fuels, policymakers are beginning to target farming too.

The most important biodiversity summit in a decade is taking place this week in Montreal. It follows last month’s UN-sponsored climate talks, where a day of the two-week program was dedicated to agriculture. The event built on the 2021 summit in Glasgow, with more than 150 nations now committed to cutting methane emissions 30% by the decade’s end.

To meet that goal, some of the developed world’s agricultural powerhouses are unveiling bold new policies. New Zealand, the largest dairy exporter, said it would begin taxing agricultural emissions by 2025, a world first according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Irish farmers are expected to cut emissions by a quarter before 2030. Denmark wants its farming and forestry sectors to cut emissions as much as 65%.

Politically, however, agriculture could prove trickier to tackle than sectors like mining, energy or cars, which are dominated by a small number of big, corporate players. Farmers are a force of millions, some with small holdings that have been in families for generations, giving them an attachment to land — and occupation — that runs deeper than profit. 

Soaring food, fuel and fertilizer prices are already spurring public discontent. Polish and Greek farmers drove tractors to their capitals to voice grievances earlier this year and protests in solidarity with Dutch farmers erupted across Europe. Farmer protests have surged around the globe — in Europe they’re up 30% from 2021 — and are expected to gain momentum in the coming months and years, driven by inflation, drought and tightening environmental regulation, according to a tracker produced by political risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

Agriculture is a major export sector for many countries, but food is also a basic human need, and what we eat is often engrained in our heritage and sense of identity. It’s a more politically charged issue than many. 

That’s why the Dutch standoff has struck an international cord, catapulting farmers to the center of a global culture war that’s seen them demonized by activists advocating vegan lifestyles and lionized by right-wing groups opposed to government regulations on everything from Covid to climate. Even former US President Donald Trump has used them to push his agenda. “Farmers in the Netherlands — of all places — are courageously opposing the climate tyranny of the Dutch government,” he said at a rally in July. 

On Twitter, activists using the hashtag #NoFarmersNoFood have tapped a primordial fear — that imposing environmental safeguards means the world won’t produce enough food for a growing population. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already exacerbated worries over food insecurity by pushing up the price of grains and fertilizers. Farmers have picked up the refrain, warning that climate-related regulation will mean not only less food but higher prices in the supermarket for consumers already grappling with the worst inflation in decades.

The debate has exacerbated the disconnect between rural and urban dwellers, stretching an old political divide into a cultural chasm. When the Dutch town of Haarlem banned meat advertising due to the severe climate impact of modern livestock rearing, some farmers saw it as another front in a broader campaign that could ultimately extinguish their livelihoods.

Farmers are “ordinary people but they feel treated like criminals. Everything farmers do is bad; poison sprayers, environmental polluters, mistreatment of animals,” says Caroline van der Plas, leader of the populist Farmer-Citizen Movement, which stormed onto the Dutch political scene in 2019. “They feel undervalued and have no space to expand or develop their business and are very worried about their future.”

But the notion that climate policies will lead to food shortages is “a misconception,” argues Dhanush Dinesh, founder of Clim-Eat, an Utrecht-based think tank. Global efforts have largely centered on solutions such as finding better ways to manage soil and water and reforming a food production system that currently results in needless waste, he says.

Almost a third of all food produced is never eaten. Far more land is used to raise and feed livestock than to grow food crops for people. And it’s not just climate concerns, but an epidemic in obesity and disease that’s prompting governments to push healthier and more sustainable diets.

The climate crisis calls for tailored approaches, from reducing meat consumption to alternative protein and vertical farming, says Dinesh. The issue is that farmers are not always part of the policy-making process.

“Climate policies need to be done in a more staggered and inclusive manner,” he says. “How can we engage with farmers better and address their needs, that’s essential.”

On a bright October morning some 18,000 km (11,000 miles) from the Netherlands, farm trucks adorned with signs reading “No Farmers No Food” and “No Fart Tax” descended on Wellington, New Zealand, the Twisted Sister anthem We’re Not Gonna Take It blaring from loud speakers. About 30 vehicles converged on parliament to voice opposition to the government’s climate policy. 

Agriculture accounts for almost half of New Zealand’s export revenues — and half its greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, it passed a law targeting a 24% reduction in net agricultural emissions by 2050. Farmers must achieve a 10% cut in the next three years, when the emissions levy comes into force.

Government forecasters expect land dedicated to lamb, beef and dairy farming to shrink, with marginal acreage converted to forest and monetized through carbon credits. The so-called “fart tax” will be reinvested in the industry through incentives, research and technology so New Zealand can reposition itself as a leader in ethically produced, higher-value food, a market that’s growing as consumers become more climate and health conscious.

Startups are racing to develop new technologies like seaweed-based pellets that reduce emissions, but farmers are frustrated because, for now, the only realistic way to meet the targets is to reduce herd sizes.

Bryce McKenzie, a dairy farmer based in West Otago, has cut his herd of 700 cows by 50 in the last year, but it’s not enough. He co-founded Groundswell NZ, the fringe farmers group that organized the protests, two years ago after losing faith that the government’s much-vaunted partnership with big agricultural lobby groups could save the sector. 

“We don't want a country planted in pine trees and then not be able to grow food,” says McKenzie. “We want food security for the future.”

Elsewhere, governments are treading more carefully. In Ireland, where agriculture produces about a third of greenhouse gases, farmers are expected to cut emissions by 25%, compared with 75% targets for electricity and 50% for transport. Australia has so far ruled out new taxes or livestock reductions and is focusing on more climate-efficient management. 

In the European Union, soaring energy and food bills have taken some policies off the table for now. The idea of a meat tax, once hotly-debated, is a “political hot potato,” says Tim Rees, a meat industry consultant at Euromonitor International.

So far, only 3% of all climate finance has gone into food systems, according to the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

The issue for farmers, consumers and policymakers is that we’re running out of time. Weather-related disasters have surged fivefold in the last half century. Just this year, floods submerged swaths of Pakistan while drought scorched crops from the US to Brazil, all exacerbated by climate change.

Chuck Fossay, who’s farmed outside Winnipeg, Manitoba for more than five decades, has seen extreme weather become more frequent on his slice of the Canadian prairies. Last year, drought shrunk his wheat and canola plants to a fraction of their normal size. This year, heavy rain drowned some of his fields. At the same time, growing seasons are longer and the first frost doesn't arrive until the end of September. Fossay started growing corn for the first time in 2007 — something he wouldn’t have attempted in the 1970s. But climate rules are adding to his worries. 

Canada’s carbon tax means Fossay paid 7.7 Canadian cents ($0.06) more per liter to fuel his grain dryer this year. Voluntary federal targets to cut nitrogen emissions by 30% threaten to further squeeze margins. Farmer groups expect to lose $8 billion in foregone output this decade.

Fossay is part of a pilot program encouraging farmers to use more efficient fertilizer. While he’s eligible for up to $4,400 in rebates for his canola acres, the fertilizer costs an extra $3.7 an acre and would cost $13,300 to use across his entire farm. 

“We’re being asked to do something to benefit all of society yet we're the ones left with the bill,” says Fossay, who farms with his brothers on 3,600 acres that’ve been in the family since the early 1900s. “We have to do what we can but it has to be achievable and it has to be fair.”

The consequences of delaying climate action are on full display in the Netherlands, which is the world’s second biggest exporter of agricultural produce after the US, but is smaller in area than the state of West Virginia. It achieves that feat partly because it sustains more animals per hectare than any country in Europe.

The government previously shied away from imposing environmental protections required by the European Union, partly due to concerns over the economic and political consequences. The cost of that inaction is nitrogen pollution so severe it’s threatening entire ecosystems. The Dutch courts have even restricted construction and some other activities to preserve natural habitats protected by the EU.

More than an hour’s drive east of Kooijman’s farm, De Hoge Veluwe National Park, one of Holland’s largest nature reserves, is facing a potentially catastrophic decline in biodiversity. Nitrogen leaching into the soil from nearby farms is causing some plant species to grow out of control, but starving others of calcium. The nutrient balance is so off kilter, snails are struggling to grow shells. Even Veluwe’s oak trees are sick. Livestock waste — mainly cow urine — is the biggest culprit.

To help restore equilibrium, farms are required to slash emissions as much as 70%. The closer a farm is to one of the country’s 160 protected natural areas, the tighter the limits. To meet them, livestock numbers must shrink by a third overall. If the government gets its way, the biggest polluters will be closed by this time next year. 

For Dutch farmers, the plans amount to a government landgrab and some have already resumed their protests. For ecologists, acting now is the only way to guarantee that we can keep producing enough food in the decades to come. 

“They couldn’t wait,” says Wieger Wamelink, a researcher at Wageningen University who recently conducted a study at the Veluwe reserve. “Because then probably a lot of trees will have died and you’re talking about an ecosystem collapse.”

--With assistance from Diederik Baazil, Morwenna Coniam and Jennifer A Dlouhy.

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