A closer look at four frequently heard statements. To start with the last question: do we actually have a nitrogen problem?
1. ‘There is no nitrogen problem, it only exists on paper’
“I think many people are not aware of how big the nitrogen problem is,” says Marjolein Demmers, director of Nature and the Environment. Three months ago, she showed Christianne van der Wal (Nature and Nitrogen) what nitrogen does to a nature reserve. They visited the Kampina area of North Brabant. “Usually there is a lot of biodiversity there, now it almost looks like a savannah. Lots of yellow grasses. All kinds of flowers and butterflies are lost there.”
Bart Verheggen, climate specialist at RTL Nieuws, explains why. It is ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. A lot of ammonia is emitted in agriculture, most of which is absorbed into the soil. There it provides an excess of nutrients that benefit fast-growing species such as grasses, stinging nettles and blackberries. These then displace the slower growing species – which provide biodiversity.
In addition, ammonia in the soil is converted to nitrate, which acidifies the soil. “This means that other nutrients are no longer available to the plants. Over time, nature will visibly deteriorate.”
According to Demmer, nature is ‘completely saturated’ with ammonia. This disturbs the earth. Plants and animals do not get the right nutrients. With all the dangers it entails. From birds that get too little lime, to oak trees that become more susceptible to diseases and pests.
2. ‘We will soon have empty shelves in the supermarket’
But is it possible to just throw all that cattle away? Reducing the number of livestock would lead to empty supermarket shelves. “People rebel when the shelves are empty”, tweeted Caroline van der Plas, MP for BBB. That is an often heard argument. An image of fear.
“Puddle,” says Bart Verheggen. “The bulk of the profits from Dutch agriculture, especially from livestock farms, are for export.”
“The food supply is really not in danger,” says Roel Jongeneel, associate professor of agricultural policy at Wageningen University. “We export a large part of the food produced in the Netherlands, about 60 percent, to other countries. It is not the case that if we take environmental measures here, we will have empty shelves in the shops.”
This infographic shows the consequences of the huge livestock industry; a significant fertilizer surplus:
3. ‘We should be grateful to farmers’
All the measures it seems as if the farmers are being punished. That’s not how you should see it, says assistant professor Jongeneel. In fact, he believes that farmers in the Netherlands should have greater recognition. “In Western countries, only 4 percent of the working population provides our food. We have thus entrusted an important task to a very small group of people who do this with dedication. Farmers should be recognized for that.”
Nor is it entirely true that they are now scapegoats. In fact, farmers have already worked hard to reduce nitrogen. “In 1990, we were on 350 million kilos of ammonia emissions a year, we are now under 150 million kilos. So it’s about halving. They’ve already done a lot. It’s not because nothing happens. Only: it’s not enough. “
Cardboard and keep wet
The guilty finger should go to the government. “Politicians have been postponing the reduction of nitrogen for years,” Jongeneel says. “It has been a mess in recent years. In the meantime, the situation has worsened.”
For example, the European Nature Conservation Act was circumvented by the Programmatic Approach to Nitrogen (PAS): Activities leading to higher nitrogen emissions could continue provided the additional emissions were offset elsewhere. In practice, the latter often did not happen, as a result of the State Council in 2019 declaring PAS illegal.
Some farmers rightly feel attacked. “Now the time is really short and the sector has to take the right path, so to speak. From an administrative point of view, some mistakes have been made.”
Nitrogen: what happens again?
The government has its back to the wall. The Netherlands must comply with European nature conservation laws, which it has violated for years. Judges reject permits for housing, road construction and business on a large scale because they lead to more nitrogen emissions.
Emissions of nitrogen in a number of areas must fall by 70 to 95 percent within eight years, is the government’s current plan. The twelve provincial governments must report to Minister Christianne Van der Wal within a year on how they want to achieve this reduction.
4. ‘Nitrogen decision is a death sentence for many farmers’
The fear of many farmers is that they will have to stop their business. It does not have to be. In fact, the nitrogen decree is not about the number of farmers, but about the number of animals kept.
For example, it is expected that biodynamic farmers will be spared the reduction of livestock as they keep fewer animals and cultivate circular agriculture: circular agriculture is the link between agriculture and livestock: animals eat the earth’s residual flows. The fertilizer is then the raw material for the crops. For many biodynamic farmers, this comes down to one hectare of cow per hectare. hectares of land.
“It is said that farms that are hundreds of years old will disappear, but it is not necessary at all,” a biologically dynamic farmer also told RTL Nieuws. “There should be fewer domestic animals. It’s about the animals.”
Price tag for the consumer
Assistant Professor Jongeneel says that fewer animals usually lead to fewer farmers. “Another possibility is that the profit per liter of milk, for example, increases. Then a farmer with fewer animals can also earn a reasonable income, but there is a price tag for the consumer and the chain.”
Finally, Demmer from Natuur en Milieu says: “The measures should not be seen as a threat, but as a lifeline for farmers. With this package and with all possible financial resources, we hope that farmers will seize this opportunity to develop a future-proof business. “Now choose to move, adapt or stop. That it does justice to what they have built up. It is, of course, very moving for the farmers, but it is this plan that is needed.”