Farmers and nitrogen – an unhappy union

Dutch farmers are in deep manure. On 22 July, thousands of Dutch farmers descended on the building of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) in Bilthoven, where they jeered and waved banners accusing the Dutch Minister of Agriculture, Carola Schouten, and the RIVM, of cooking up statistics on nitrogen emissions. Last month’s demonstration was only one of many. Since last year, the Farmers Defense Force (FDF) has organized numerous demonstrations, with farmers blocking highways with tractors and occupying the Malieveld in The Hague. All in response to the government’s aims to drastically downside the agriculture sector in order to reduce nitrogen emissions to pre-1990 levels.

Since May 2019, the FDF has successfully activated the Netherlands’ 53,233 farmers to protest the government’s far-reaching implications of this environmental policy. This is a triumph itself, as farmers are not easily riled up. If the government is successful, the animal breeding sector will be reduced significantly, with smaller herds per farm. This will cause income loss for the farmers and for the entire agribusiness sector, which in 2016 was good for € 84 billion.

In a little country like the Netherlands, agriculture is big business. It is so big that the Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world. Dutch Gouda and Edam cheese, eggs, ham and even tomatoes  are exported all over the world. Historically, Dutch agriculture has been the mainstay of the economy. With only wind and water (and some green pastures), Holland in Antiquity was a poor region in Europe. Since the late Middle Ages, the country specialized in dairy products. With its milk, butter and cheese, Holland traded for wheat, lumber and other raw materials. In the seventeenth century, with its knack for logistics, the Netherlands emerged as a staple market for Europe, and after the founding the Dutch East and West Indies Companies, traded goods from all over the world.

But today, the success of Dutch agriculture is coming at a large price for the country’s environment, public health and biodiversity. Whereas Dutch farmers throughout the centuries have developed a talent for efficiency and high productivity, now the sector’s livelihood is threatened. More than 24.4 million pigs, 1.6 million cows and 380 million chickens are raised annually in the Netherlands. The majority are exported, but their manure, containing high concentrations of nitrogen, is left behind.

Nitrogen by itself is not harmful (78% of all air is nitrogen), but there are compounds of nitrogen in the air that can be harmful, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx, a compound of nitrogen and oxygen) and ammonia (NH3, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen), which mainly originates from livestock. NH3 is released into the atmosphere mainly by farmers who use livestock manure to fertilize their pastures and cropland, but a small percentage comes from industry, construction and traffic. When it precipitates, the nitrogen mixes with the rainwater and is absorbed into the soil, making it rich in nutrients. However, this is a problem especially for the biodiversity of nature reserves, where indigenous plants thrive on nutrient-poor soil, and the wildlife that lives off those plants. In the Netherlands, 161 natural reserves are protected by Natura 2000, a European network of protected natural areas.

Last year the Dutch state lost an appeal after it was taken to court by the Urgenda organization, which is fighting for a sustainable economy, because it fails to live up to an agreement to reduce nitrogen emissions to 25% of pre-1990 levels. Since losing the appeal, the Dutch government is in a mad dash to reduce nitrogen emissions. To make immediate reductions, the government has halted many construction projects, even though they are responsible for only a minor percentage of nitrogen emissions. But with a chronic housing shortage in the Netherlands, and no new construction permitted, more than 27,000 people, from builders, contractors, planners and designers are out of work.

Now Dutch farmers, responsible for the lion’s share of nitrogen emissions, are faced with harsher measures. To scale back emissions, so the building sector can re-open, the government is proposing farmers to adapt to sustainable farming methods or accept government buy-outs. But farmers are not willing to accept this, as they fear it will ultimately ruin the entire agriculture sector. With no foreseeable solution in view, expect more tractors on the highways.

Written by Benjamin Roberts