Straight, No Chaser: Down on the farm

Recent events have certainly proved the durability of the old adage ‘a week is a long time in politics’.

The Venstre-led minority government looked more vulnerable than usual, and with the ‘Gordian knot’ confrontation with their Konservative allies and subsequent resignation of the minister for environment and food, the wheels seemed to be well and truly falling off.

Food for thought
At the end of 2015, Minister Eva Kjer Hansen was tasked with producing a package of measures to support food production and simplify the rules governing the environmental aspects of farming.

Amongst these were proposals to amend the current rules regulating the amounts of manure and fertiliser that farmers are allowed to spread on their fields and adjustments to the marginal zones of fields up to water sources.

For some time, Denmark has had problems dealing with the effects of deoxygenation in its fjords and surrounding seas and the pollution of drinking water. Much of the nitrogen and phosphate responsible has been linked to the effects of intensive farming, so successive governments have tried various measures to combat this. The EU also has mandatory regulations and Denmark has already been rapped over the knuckles for delays in this area.

Enter the villains
When the proposals were presented, there appeared to be a striking similarity between some of them and the agenda of the lobbying organisation Bæredygtigt Landbrug (Sustainable Farming).

A few years ago, this organisation was politically out in the cold and dismissed as extremists with a penchant for using litigation when they feel they have been misrepresented. Fast-forward to the present, when they now have the ear of the government in environmental and food matters – most particularly the Business and Growth Ministry.

Massaging the figures
Criticism increasingly focused on the way the figures in the proposal appeared to artificially inflate environmental dividends. It was also suggested that the water pollution situation would worsen – at least to start with.

Things then moved quickly. The minister was repeatedly called to parliamentary committee hearings, but refused to admit to errors or manipulation. Damagingly, during the hearings, several of the experts whose research had contributed to the paper stated that they felt that their work had been misrepresented.

Putting the boot in
The coup de grâce came when Konservative threatened to table a motion of no-confidence in the minister. Despite the support of the prime minister, Hansen resigned.

This piece of political grandstanding took place just before Konservative celebrated its 100th anniversary, so it could be viewed as an attempt to profile the party and shore up its environmental credentials. Relations are now severely strained between the government and its support parties.

The new minister, Esben Lunde Larsen, may not be any more acceptable. His tenure at the Education Ministry was overshadowed by problems over his CV and educational qualifications, so maybe he’s not the safest pair of hands.

We should perhaps ask whether the preservation of the environment is compatible with furthering the interests of industrial-scale farming. Since June 2015, both have been covered by the same ministry and it is clear which side is winning.