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Dutch farmers called upon to sort pollution or sell

Ella Joyner Amsterdam and Alkmaar, Netherlands
July 14, 2022

Farmers in the Netherlands are up in arms over plans requiring nitrogen pollution to be slashed. But why this sudden explosion of protest, and could it spread elsewhere?

Erneut Bauernproteste in Niederlanden
Image: Vincent Jannink/ANP/dpa/picture alliance

Headlines about tiny Netherlands' success as a major global agricultural producer normally focus on its pioneering farming methods and futuristic greenhouses. But not in recent weeks; instead, a wave of sometimes violent protests has grabbed global attention.

The country's farmers are in uproar over the government's environmental plans. Many face what they say is an impossible ultimatum: sort out pollution or sell off your farm.

"I think there is an agenda to make Holland a different country. And the farmers are standing in the way," says Ad Baltus, a 52-year-old who keeps around 130 dairy cows not far from Alkmaar in North Holland.

"They want to change the whole landscape." How so? "More nature, more solar [panel] fields. They need grounds for building houses, industry. And that space, we have to give, as farmers."

Ad Baltus at his farm near Alkmaar, the Netherlands, with his dog Knoester
Dutch farmer Ad Baltus feels the change is part of a larger agenda to shift land useImage: Ella Joyner/DW

Tiny country, loads of cows

Giving a tour of the land he has worked for 40 years with his dog Knoester at heel, he explains that though he does not condone violence, he certainly understands the farmers' anger, and has himself been protesting.

The row relates to nitrogen, an omnipresent substance that is essential for plant growth but can harm air, water and soil quality, and ultimately biodiversity, when too much is released into the environment in certain forms.

Climate activists blame the pollution on the intensive agriculture model of the Netherlands, which has by far the highest livestock concentration in the European Union. With a reputation for high-tech farming, the tiny nation is the world's second-largest agricultural exporter after the United States — a country with 237 times more land. Dutch agriculture and horticulture account for 10% of the national economy and 17.5% of exports (€65 billion each year).

Dutch farmers angry over emissions targets

In the Netherlands, nitrogen pollution mostly comes from farming (particularly intensive animal agriculture for meat and dairy), as well as transport. It causes soil acidification, and in bodies of water a process called eutrophication (when nutrient runoff reduces oxygen concentration in water and leads to dense plant growth — think algae blooms).

The problematic chemical compounds are nitrous oxide (NOx) and ammonia (NH3), which are released from farms into the environment in both gas and water-soluble form through use of chemical fertilizer or from animal waste.

According to Greenpeace, walking through parts of the Dutch countryside, nowadays you'll see more nitrogen-hardy species like stinging nettles and brambles, and less nitrogen-sensitive ones like the yellow-bellied toad or the hazel mouse.

Habitat with high nitrogen deposits and much more grass in the Netherlands
High nitrogen levels trigger ecosystem impacts — here, higher grass is a sign of too much nitrogenImage: Eva Lemke/B-WARE

The World Wildlife Fund points to the example of nitrogen-overloaded Veluwe, in central Netherlands, where black tits face breeding problems. Acidic soil means less calcium in the ground, and therefore weaker eggshells and more fragile bones for baby birds.

Sort it out or sell it off

After years of pressure, the Hague has unveiled radical proposals that it hopes will finally deal with the problem for good.

Compelled by EU and national court rulings to tighten nitrogen measures, the Dutch government is now planning to halve nitrogen emissions overall by 2030. The agricultural sector must reduce nitrogen pollution by up to 70%, and farms in EU-designated Natura 2000 habitat-protected zones face the toughest restrictions.

This means many farms will have to radically change — or shut down altogether. The Hague has earmarked €25 billion to fund nitrogen-cutting techniques or to buy out certain farms.

"The honest story is that not all farmers can continue with their business," the government said in June, prompting outrage.

For Natasja Oerlemans of the World Wildlife Fund, the current crisis is "the result of 30 years of inaction, despite all of the scientific reports and warnings."

"We as a society have allowed this broken food system to happen," she wrote in an email, "and we are responsible for providing farmers alternatives."

Person wearing wooden Dutch clos sits on farming equipment at protest
Farmers see their existence as threatened by enforcement of nitrogen standardsImage: Lars Klemmer/dpa/picture alliance

No intention to sell

Dairy farmer Baltus has gotten away fairly lightly under the plan, only needing to reduce nitrogen emissions 12%. It will cost money, he says — but he has no intention of selling the business that has been in the family for some 200 years.

Like many Dutch farmers, Baltus takes pride in the country's productive power, relatively high environmental standards, and reputation for innovation. Shutting down farms in the Netherlands only pushes them to places with laxer rules, he says.

Farmers need more time, he argues. Nitrogen emissions and cattle levels have fallen hugely from their peak levels in the 1980s, he points out. (Although overall livestock concentration actually increased 6% from 2013 to 2016).

"My ancestors did it differently," says Baltus. "The generation after me is doing it also different, and I hope better."

Farmers still have options

Ad Baltus feeds one of his roughly 130 dairy cows at his farm near Alkmaar, the Netherlands
Baltus and Luiten are among many Dutch farmers feeling the pinch from the regulationsImage: Ella Joyner/DW

Erik Luiten, a fifth-generation dairy farmer from Aalten in the Netherlands not far from the German border, is also required to reduce nitrogen pollution by 12%. Some of his neighbors who operate closer to protected zones must slash nitrogen emissions by 95%, he says.

The 52-year-old but won't be cutting his livestock numbers — that would eat up his profits. There are other ways to reduce, Luiten explains on the phone, though they come with price tags or productivity trade-offs.

For example, it's possible to cut the amount of protein in cattle feed; pump water into manure; or leave cows out in the field longer. The latter works because it stops cow urine and feces from mixing; the combination is an ammonia super-cocktail.

Scientists even tried toilet training cows so that they leave urine in one spot and feces in another. It doesn't work in practice, Baltus laments: "Cows are not that clever."

Not just a Dutch problem

 Tipi 87, a cow at a farm near Alkmaar, the Netherlands
Cows also burp out methane, a powerful greenhouse gasImage: Ella Joyner/DW

While the Netherlands is exceptionally intensively farmed and densely populated, nitrogen is a problem all over Europe, as Jan Willem Erisman, a professor at the University of Leiden, points out. Regions such as the Po Valley in Italy, Brittany in France and parts of Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom all struggle with excessive deposits.

The current Dutch showdown ultimately hinges on EU standards setting maximum safe nitrogen levels for habitats, which apply all throughout the bloc.

Neighboring Belgium, which has the third-highest EU livestock concentration and a major nitrogen problem as well, is watching the Netherlands closely. The government of the Dutch-speaking region, Flanders, wants to reduce numbers of pigs 30% by 2030 and is offering farmers €150 euros per pig and €855 euros per sow to buy them out.

Erisman warns via email that Germany is another potential powder keg because of a new legislative package on waterborne nitrogen pollution; France could also follow.

What advice does the professor of environmental sustainability have for governments? "They should have a policy in place to meet the EU nitrogen targets," he says. Such plans should move neither too quickly nor too slowly, Erisman cautions.

With the Dutch government having sketched some outlines, it is now up to provincial administrations to develop and execute plans. Although farmers face uncertainly, many also see room to negotiate. Neither Baltus nor Luiten have given up yet.

But Luiten is sure of one thing: "Once a farm goes away, it never comes back." Unfortunately for him, that might be exactly the idea.

Ad Baltus at his farm near Alkmaar, the Netherlands
Baltus and other farmers face an uncertain futureImage: Ella Joyner/DW

Edited by: Sonya Diehn