Dutch agriculture minister resigns after protests over pollution

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The Dutch agriculture minister has unexpectedly resigned, telling reporters he wasn’t the right person for the job following a tumultuous summer of protests by farmers over pollution regulations.

Henk Staghouwer, who held the position for only nine months, announced his decision Monday night. He had just returned from Brussels, where he negotiated an agreement with the European Commission to scrap a Dutch exemption to manure spreading limits.

The Netherlands, along with Denmark, Ireland and the Flanders region of Belgium, had been allowed to exceed caps on how much manure farmers could return to their fields because of the country’s comparatively small land area. But Brussels wants to phase out this dispensation because the Dutch are failing to meet EU water quality standards.

The country’s lucrative agriculture sector has been in crisis since a 2019 court ruling forced the government to slash emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia, which livestock produce. Thousands of farmers have staged protests, blockading cities with tractors and burning hay bales along highways.

A 60-year-old former baker, Staghouwer had been tasked with transitioning the sector away from intensive farming practices and buying out farmers to reduce total emissions.

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The government allocated an extra 24.3 billion euros ($24.2 billion) to tackle the problem. Last week Staghouwer told the Cabinet that he would be unable to meet a mid-September deadline to present a plan for the transition.

“I respect his brave decision,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte wrote on Twitter, but others were less praising. Member of parliament Caroline van der Plas of The Farmer–Citizen Movement party (BBB) said “he was totally unsuitable” for the job.

Bart Kemp of farmers’ organization Agractie told Dutch public broadcaster NOS that Staghouwer was “a friendly man, but not a decisive person.”

Staghouwer’s role will temporarily be taken on by the former agricultural minister Carola Schouten.

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