The center-right Dutch government aims to reduce nitrogen emissions by 50% by 2030. To achieve this, it estimates that it will be necessary to invest 30,000 million euros in cutting 30% of the livestock population. Although the plan also includes reducing this type of pollution in air and sea traffic, it focuses on the purchase, transfer and sustainable transformation of livestock farms. While farm owners will be compensated for the voluntary sale of their businesses, expropriation is not ruled out when located near a nature reserve. The balance between nature and agricultural activities is sought, paving the way towards a circular economy. A production model that in turn offers future prospects to a sector where 59% of farmers over 55 years of age had no successor in 2020, according to national statistics.
The 30% reduction covers all animals raised for consumption and is an estimate made by the Environmental Planning Office (PBL, in its Dutch acronym) at the request of the Government. In 2021, there were about 18.2 million farm animals in the Netherlands, including 12 million pigs and nearly 4 million cows — dairy and beef — according to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). In addition, 100 million chickens are raised. In the last decade, however, the number of pig farms has decreased: in 2011 there were 6,500; last year there were 3,400. The same has happened with cow farms: in 2016 there were about 19,900; a year ago there were 15,261. On the other hand, small farms have been disappearing while the number of heads of cattle has increased in larger ones. Thus, in the year 2000, 78% of the owners had less than 70 copies each. In 2020, just over a thousand farmers were raising more than 200 separately.
The manure produced by all livestock, particularly cattle and pigs, contains nitrogen and phosphorous, which are valuable to the soil but can accumulate in excess and in turn pollute the water through the excessive supply of nutrients. Nitrogen emissions have been too high in the Netherlands for decades, and the field generates about 65% of those that affect protected nature reserves. At least 14 habitats, included in 52 of these reserves spread throughout the national territory, are in a limit situation, and must be regenerated before 2025, according to Greenpeace.
With the abolition of milk quotas by the EU at the end of 2015, the increase in dairy cows raised in the country triggered the production of agricultural phosphate. In view of the effect that this had on nature, the Executive has been applying a credit system since 2018 to be able to produce phosphorus from manure. Called the “phosphate right”, it forces the farmer to buy the emission rights from other colleagues who have reduced their herds or closed the barn. For each transaction, 10% of these rights are deposited in a kind of phosphate bank to promote extensive livestock farming capable of absorbing the production of its natural fertilizers.
There are also nitrogen emission rights on the market, “but the Executive should have stopped this problem much earlier; including that relating to traffic and industry. That is why we face the current crisis. It has not been concerned for years about avoiding environmental deterioration resulting from its mismanagement of the industrial agricultural system”, says Hilde Anna de Vries, Greenpeace expert. In a telephone conversation, she stresses that farmers are necessary and those who want to sell “must receive a fair price for getting rid of their business.” For their part, those who opt for the sustainable path to conserve it “need time to make the transition and the support of the entire rural chain, from banks to supermarkets, in order to generate adequate income,” she asserts.
He knows in depth all the sides of the coin.
The Netherlands is the largest exporter of meat for consumption in the EU, and did so in 2020 worth 8.8 billion euros. It also sells 70% of its dairy and egg production abroad, which reported 9,000 million euros in 2020. The dairy sector owes its size in part to the company FrieslandCampina, which, with some 24,000 employees, operates in 38 countries and has some 11,000 associated dairy producers. The figures are on the table of Christianne van der Wal, the new Minister for Nature and Nitrogen, attached to the Ministry of Agriculture, who recently showed in Congress the limits of dialogue with farmers. According to her, “expropriations do not enter into the equation and I will do my best to avoid them, although we will not always achieve it everywhere.” She was referring to farms located too close to nature reserves, intended to preserve biodiversity, and where nitrogen precipitates. “We will set a firm deadline for areas that are under too much pressure and cannot wait,” she added. Van der Wal concluded by saying that she wants to implement the compensation plans for farmers between 2022 and 2023, “because the sooner we do it, the more attractive it will be from an economic point of view.”
Trienke Elshof has a family dairy farm and asks the government for dialogue and clarity. On the phone, she explains that reducing the livestock population is not the right approach: “In the end there may be fewer animals, but the essential thing is to reduce nitrogen.” She also chairs one of the regional sections of the Agricultural and Horticultural Organization (LTO) and defends a three-point plan designed to reduce this type of pollution. “It consists of improving the diet of the animals, diluting the manure to soften its impact on the land and increasing the hours in which the cattle graze outdoors. Nitrogen emissions inside the stables can also be reduced, something that is already done with pigs and poultry.” She does not like the model of Flanders, in Belgium, which plans the mandatory closure of the 60 most polluting farms by 2025 at the latest. “Forcing the sale does not seem appropriate to us and we prefer to avoid surprises. That is why we maintain direct contact with the Government, which hopes to present its plans for the provinces this April, ”she assures.
The decomposition of nitrogen gives rise to ammonia, a toxic gas that accumulates in livestock due to a diet rich in protein. Jan Dijkstra, an expert at Wageningen University in cattle nutrition, explains that nitrogen is in the protein ingested by animals and investigates how to reduce it because owners often give cows too much. “On dairy farms you can cut 10% to 15%, and that is equivalent to the same amount of nitrogen emissions. The cows’ diet consists of forage and concentrate feed, and owners have to know how much protein is in both to balance it out. It is necessary to optimize the essential amino acids to achieve a good diet with less protein, because the one that does not enter with the food will not end up in the feces and urine; in the manure,” he notes. Dijkstra argues that farmers’ organizations are very active, and the best way to achieve a proper diet “is to have good examples within the sector”, to stimulate change.