Ask any tourist what comes to mind when they think of the Netherlands and there is a good chance they will say “windmills”. Ask any agricultural professional what the Netherlands is known for and they may mention “water management” and “dairy” (you know, the big round cheeses). Few people may realize how these are all intricately interwoven, and how their interaction over time has created an environmental disaster.

Integrated animal health monitoring

In his thought-provoking book Against the Grain, James Scott draws on earlier work of anthropologists and archaeologists to provide some insights into how early humans changed their environment to source food from closer to home. Through controlled fires, certain plants and wildlife species were favoured, while cooking enabled our ancestors to extract more nutrients from plants and animals than was previously possible. The very act of domesticating plants, animals and fire, in a sense also domesticated us a species. While modern cows and many of our crops can no longer survive without us, we can no longer survive without them. Besides fire, people also relied heavily on water. In fact, everywhere in the world, ancient peoples first settled near rivers or at the fringes of wetlands which, along with the nearby forests, provided a rich variety of food.

Agricultural technology was fairly stable for centuries, but slowly began to change in medieval times, which brings us back to the windmill. While fixed windmills were found in Flanders by the 11th century, they were mainly used to grind grain. In the 1600s a Dutchman, Cornelis Corneliszoon van Uitgeest, added a crankshaft, an Arab invention, to convert the rotating movement of a windmill into an up-and-down one. Windmills could now also be used to saw wood, and to pump water. Soon the landscape was dotted with thousands of windmills. The now so typical Dutch landscape of peat grasslands and ditches is a man-made ecosystem shaped through drainage by windmills. The new pastures with lowered groundwater tables were especially apt for dairy farming, serving what became the world-renown Dutch dairy sector.

The drainage of the wetlands sounds like a great agronomic achievement, but a Dutch veterinarian Katrien van ‘t Hooft, director of Dutch Farm Experience, recently showed me the other side of the coin. The continuous drainage of surface water and lowered groundwater table, combined with modern dairy farming and use of tractors, has caused a drop in the peatland. The land has been sinking several centimeters per year for a long time, faster than rise in sea level. Projections are that under current management the peat soils will further sink 2 meters before 2050, and become a major threat to the country. Although the Dutch government is taking urgent measures to restore the groundwater table, the challenges do not stop there.