In the Netherlands, the first weekend of July was marked by massive protests by Dutch farmers over a new government scheme to reduce nitrogen and ammonium pollution that will target the country’s agriculture industry.
Three years of protests against long awaited—and dreaded—environmental measures to curb agricultural waste have intensified since the Dutch government set out its intention for reducing nitrogen pollution by 2030, in some areas by up to 70%. These goals were announced on June 10th. Detailed measures for meeting the targets have not yet been legislated, but leaked drafts of potential government policy are calling for a cull of cows, chickens, pigs, and other farm animals raised in the country, along with farmer buyout schemes. But even before this offensive disclosure, farmers were treated to an earlier leak by the Associated Dutch Press in 2021, wherein insidious legal advice was given to the Ministry of Agriculture—to withdraw the farming permits of farmers who exceeded legal nitrogen levels—as the fastest way to deal with the situation.
“Some of our farmers will not be able to continue their businesses as they do now,” Christianne van der Wal, the Minister for Nature and Nitrogen, said at a news conference in June when the ministry’s objectives were announced.
Farmers say they are being unfairly singled out, and that the government’s plans for less intensive agriculture are not the only option.
On July 3rd, farmers convened en masse in their tractors and blocked the German-Dutch border. Others protested by dumping manure in front of several public buildings. Reuters reports that on July 4th, they also blocked roads and supermarket distribution centres.
The Netherlands is the largest agricultural exporter in the world after the United States, despite being one of the smallest countries territorially, achieved by highly intensive practices, often linked to excessive nitrogen run off that lands in lakes and streams.
Nitrogen is a naturally occurring element, and a key ingredient in fertiliser, as well as being found in the manure of farm animals. Cars and other industries also emit nitrogen, which then gets into the soil by rain. High concentrations of nitrogen acidify bodies of water. It can turn lakes and streams into forests of algae which, in turn, absorb oxygen, making the water less habitable for aquaculture, including fish. In the worst cases, too much nitrogen can produce toxic algal blooms that make the water deadly and impossible to process for drinking. High nitrogen levels in soils also affect forests in a similar way, overly favouring some species at the expense of others and changing the acid levels and microbes in the dirt.
The Netherlands also boasts a concentration of 160 Natura 2000 areas that stretch over 18% of the country, part of a network of nature reserves across Europe subject to European Union regulations, including nitrogen concentrations. According to government data, 70% of the country’s surface area exceeds critical limits for nitrogen.
The longstanding issue came to a head following a 2018 ruling from the European Court of Justice that declared the Dutch oversight system for nitrogen emissions not good enough. Then, a subsequent 2019 judgement from the highest administrative court in the Netherlands ruled that laws for granting permits for construction projects and agricultural activities were in breach of EU legislation. Since then, building and construction permits have been seriously delayed due to pollution regulations. In 2020, the Netherlands also instituted a 100 km/h speed limit to try to lower nitrogen levels.
To address the nitrogen produced by farms, the government has also piloted schemes to buy out farmers, Politico reports. In the program, pig farms could voluntarily apply for a buyout, but only 278 were eligible, while the ministry anticipated some 430 could have benefited.
At the same time, farmers are working to address the issue with new technology. Jeroen de Groot, dairy farmer and associate of the Nitrogen Co-op, interviewed by Politico, is part of an industry-sponsored pilot to test new systems for storing agriculture slurry and other nitrogen emissions. Previous systems were deemed insufficient by courts to meet government standards for nitrogen reduction, but he believes they have now found technology that will work.
“This is the next generation of emissions reduction systems, and it will work 100%,” de Groot predicted, adding: “If this doesn’t pass the bar, it is not due to the project but due to institutional unwillingness. To me, it seems the government is just out to acquire cheap land.”
In the meantime, he and other farmers will keep taking their demands to the government.
The Netherlands is not the only country in Europe with an excess nitrogen problem. Other European countries such as Germany and Belgium could face similar legal challenges from environmentalists, such as those who have helped push the Netherlands to more strictly regulate nitrogen emissions. In Spain, in areas of intensive agriculture, some streams already have algal overgrowth. The Mar Menor, a large sea inlet in the Mediterranean, became the site of a natural disaster in 2021 when millions of dead fish washed up on its beaches. Ecologists attributed it to a combination of factors from warming water temperatures to an excess of nutrients accumulating from agricultural runoff.