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The Netherlands’ Farm Crisis, Explained

One in three Dutch livestock farmers could lose their business.

Netherlands
Aerial view of the Netherlands (Skitterphoto)

One in three Dutch farms may need to close. It’s the most painful outcome of the government’s policy to cut nitrogen emissions in half by 2030.

The farmers’ lobby is furious, calling the plan “unrealistic” and an attack on the countryside. Pro-farmer parties have gained in the polls at the expense of the ruling Christian democrats and liberals.

Provincial deputies, who would have to decide on a case-by-case basis which farms can stay and which need to go, fear a backlash in regional elections in March. That would also put the ruling coalition at risk. Provincial deputies elect the Senate.

My own party, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal VVD, is split down the middle. 51 percent of members who attended the yearly congress on Saturday supported a motion to soften the policy.

The cabinet minister who is responsible for it, Christianne van der Wal — who is of our party, but who answers to parliament, not the party — told a reporter on Sunday she has little wiggle room. “I’m always open to good ideas,” she said. “But the targets are crystal clear.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Rutte — who has been in power for almost twelve years — called the nitrogen crisis the biggest of his political career. Yet there has been little coverage of it internationally. I suspect the reason is that Dutch media tend to emphasize reduction targets that are the outcome of judicial rulings, which gives foreign correspondents the impression that this is a Netherlands-only problem. But when you take a step back from nitrogen pollution and look at the impact of agriculture altogether, the Dutch is not an isolated case at all. It looks more like a preview of the future of intensive animal farming globally, if intensive animal farming has a future at all.

I’ll do my best to explain both the narrow issue of nitrogen pollution and the broader story of animal farming. Along the way, I’ll review the arguments farmers have made against reductions and I’ll end on the political implications for Rutte’s coalition.

What is nitrogen, and why is it a problem?

Most nitrogen pollution is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which releases nitrogen oxide, and manure from farm animals, which emits ammonia (when dung and urine mix).

The Dutch use “nitrogen” (stikstof) as an umbrella term in order to add up and compare emissions from industries and farms. Industries cause a small share of ammonia emissions, mostly in waste management, and farms cause a small share of nitrogen oxide emissions, mostly from the heating of greenhouses with natural gas. The Netherlands’ Central Bureau of Statistics has the figures for both.

Farms cause 85 percent of ammonia emissions and 40 to 45 percent of overall nitrogen emissions.

But they cause 60 percent of nitrogen deposits in conservation areas (to which they are more likely to be in proximity than industry). That will become an issue later.

The Netherlands also has the highest emissions of ammonia per hectare in the EU after Malta.

Why emissions are so high

Dutch animal farming is among the most intensive in the world. The country keeps 100 million chickens, 11.4 million pigs and 3.8 million cows (1.6 million for dairy) on 30,000 farms. That’s 115 million animals in a country only twice the size of Massachusetts. The Netherlands has the highest livestock density in the world.

(Massachusetts, incidentally, has the fifth-highest population density in the United States, which is still lower than the Netherlands’ — but it has one of the lowest livestock density rates in the country. The Netherlands is really pressed for space!)

On the upside, Dutch farmers have become extremely efficient. They produce high quantities of dairy and meat with low inputs (energy, feed, fertilizer). Dutch consumers spend only 8 percent of their money on food, which is low by global standards.

One of the downsides (and I’ll list more later) is the pollution.

Agriculture in the Dutch economy

Primary agriculture employs 2 percent of Dutch workers and is 1.4 percent to GDP. But when you also count food processing, logistics, research and other adjacent industries, the sector’s contribution is 6.4 percent.

Agricultural goods are one-seventh of Dutch exports. The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural goods, after the United States. The bulk are flowers and plants. Dairy and meat exports were worth €18 billion last year.

Impact on nature

Remember the conservation areas I mentioned? The Netherlands has 162. They range from the dunes of Holland to the Veluwe National Park to the Wadden Sea to dozens of tiny preserves that dot the countryside in the interior. All are protected by EU law.

Excess nitrogen deposits in those so-called Natura 2000 areas are the proximate cause of the crisis. They cause some plants, like grass, to grow faster, but others to wither and die.

That can wipe out an entire ecosystem. When plants die, so do the bugs that feed on them, which in turns kills the birds and ducks that eat the bugs — and a major impetus for the whole Natura 2000 program in the 1990s was to protect European bird species.

What the government has (or hasn’t) done

Until 2019, the government was essentially hoping that the problem would go away on its own. Some farmers would retire. Others would be forced out of business by competition or reduced demand for animal products. Others yet would invest in technologies that reduce ammonia emissions.

That year, the Council of State, the Netherlands’ highest administrative court, ruled that more needed to be done. It took Rutte’s four-party coalition, which includes the traditionally pro-farmer Christian Democrats and the environmentally-friendly D66, almost three years to come up with a solution.

In the meantime, judges struck down construction permits for not only farms but energy companies, housing developments, infrastructure and industry, because building causes nitrogen emissions, and the Netherlands was already in violation of its commitment to protect the Natura 2000 regions. Some 18,000 permits were canceled or delayed. In the southern provinces of Brabant and Limburg, the electric grid can no longer accommodate any new businesses. The national housing shortage has reached 279,000.

To be fair, politicians also had to deal with parliamentary elections and a pandemic in between. But the third, and perhaps main, reason it took so long is that the national government tried to find a solution that farmers’ groups and provincial deputies could live with, and they failed. Farmers ultimately walked out. Several provinces are rebelling against Van der Wal’s plan.

What the government is doing now

That plan is for farms to cut nitrogen emissions by 12 to 70 percent, depending on their proximity to conservation areas. In exceptional cases, where farms are situated in Natura 2000 areas, they would have to cut emissions by 90 percent to stay — which is impossible.

Farmers who cannot meet their targets will be given three options:

  1. Downside, or switch from animal farming to crops.
  2. Relocate.
  3. Quit.

The national government is making €32 billion available to subsidize all three options. That works out to €1 million per farm.

Arguments from farmers

Farmers give various arguments against making cutbacks.

Agriculture has already cut emissions. That’s true, by about 65 percent in the last thirty years. But it hasn’t been enough to prevent a loss of biodiversity.

The better plan is to invest in innovation. Dutch farmers are experimenting with “cow toilets” and Roomba-like robots that separate dung from urine, so less ammonia is generated in the first place. Many have installed filters (co-funded by the government) that capture ammonia emissions, which can then be recycled into artificial fertilizer. So far none of these technologies have reduced emissions as drastically as needed.

Farmers are being singled out. That’s not true. Industry and mobility need to do their part to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. But those tend to be bigger companies that can bear the costs.

Which brings us to: Farmers are hit the hardest. That’s debatable. The permitting freeze has also hurt aspiring homeowners, businesses that want to expand, even asylum seekers. As I explained here earlier, one of the reasons Dutch refugee centers are over capacity is that there isn’t enough housing. The government has ordered municipalities to set aside more social housing for refugees, so now Dutch residents on a waiting list for social housing are affected as well. They need to wait even longer.

Not all emissions are Dutch. That’s true. Pollution also flows in from farms in Belgium and industries in the German Ruhr area and the south of England. About a third of nitrogen deposits in the Netherlands are foreign in origin.

The nitrogen crisis only exists on paper. Farmers argue the models to calculate pollution are imprecise, the standards for deposits are arbitrary and the whole problem only exists because the Netherlands declared so many areas Natura 2000 preserves.

None of this is completely accurate nor completely inaccurate. No model is infallible, but calculations are informed by on-the-ground readings as well as extrapolations. EU standards are based on scientific research. They might be too strict for some areas, but for others they are too lax. Perhaps previous governments should have been more conservative about setting aside lands for conservation, but now the Netherlands would need the European Commission’s permission to remove Natura 2000 classifications — and it is in no mood to help out a country that predictably hectors others when they break (debt and deficit) rules.

There are more reasons to reduce faring

Nitrogen pollution is not the only reason to downsize animal farming in the Netherlands.

  • Cows also emit methane, which is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In Western Europe, only Denmark and Ireland emit more methane per capita than the Netherlands.
  • Too much ammonia in the soil is lethal to microbes, which sustain trees, and it pollutes ground water.
  • Factory farming increases the risk of zoological disease. COVID-19 almost certainly spread from animals to humans in China. The Netherlands had a minor outbreak of Q fever, which originated in goats. Up to 100,000 people were infected. In the last two months alone, bird flu has been found on three Dutch poultry farms. More than 100,000 chickens and ducks have been culled in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading to other farms — and people.
  • Factory farming is cruel to animals. Almost all chickens, and many cows and pigs, spend their entire lives indoors. Some chicken are still kept in tiny cages where they can barely move. (An EU ban on caging will go into effect in 2027.) Cows are artificially impregnated over and over again to continue producing milk. Newborns are taken away from their mothers within hours. Farmers didn’t choose this system. A combination of EU farm subsidies being tied to production and wholesalers and supermarkets demanding low prices has pushed them toward keeping more and more animals at low cost. Animal-friendly farming is unprofitable.
  • But: Factory farming is a bad deal for farmers too. One in three earn less than the minimum wage. There are millionaire farmers, but most of the profits go to companies that process and sell animal products.
  • Consumers don’t want this anymore. Half already buy more expensive biological farm products (free-range, made without artificial pesticides). 75 percent claim they are willing to. 80 percent are unhappy with the current meat industry. 60 percent support a ban on factory farming.

The nitrogen crisis may be just the push the Netherlands need to switch to extensive, as opposed to intensive, and animal-friendly farming.

Political implications

The policy is a lose-lose for the ruling parties.

Few home- and businessowners will thank the Christian Democrats and VVD when they can finally build a house or office in a few years, but farmers may never forgive them.

Many of the left-liberal D66’s voters are disappointed the party isn’t doing more to end factory farming.

On the right, the conservative JA21 and Farmer-Citizen Movement are up in the polls. On the left, Labor, the Greens and the Party for the Animals are stealing voters from D66.

Only the Christian Union, the smallest party in the government, has been unaffected.

The four already lack a majority in the Senate. They can either do deals with JA21, which is toxic to D66 for its restrictionist views on immigration, or with Labor and the Greens, which is hard for the Christian Democrats and VVD.

If Labor and the Greens gain enough seats in provincial and Senate elections to offset the coalition’s losses, the Christian Democrats and VVD could be trapped in a vicious cycle where D66 blocks cooperation with JA21 and the Farmer-Citizen Movement, forcing the center-right parties to make concessions to the left, which causes even more of their right-wing voters to defect.

But if the coalition had no alternative to working with JA21 — the largest opposition party in the Senate — it could be a blessing in disguise for the center-right. They are unlikely to revise their farm policy, but they could use a dependence on JA21 to justify a shift on other policies right-wing voters care about, like immigration and nuclear power.

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