Nature today | Nitrogen: the problem explained quite simply

Nitrogen emissions must be reduced in many areas of the Netherlands. In 131 areas close to vulnerable nature, even by seventy percent, the government announced it on Friday. This is significant and as a result, some farmers may have to close their businesses.

Not everyone agrees. The few fuzzy plants that can not tolerate nitrogen, is it that bad? Opinions are currently different from ‘the acid rain did not come anyway’ and ‘plants just need nitrogen to grow’ to ‘the nitrogen crisis is the biggest crisis imaginable’. Make some chocolate out of it. Therefore simple and clear about nitrogen.

Nitrogen is (not) a problem

Beforehand: nitrogen is not a problem: it is a gas that, like oxygen, is present all over the air around us and that we inhale and exhale during the day. However, nitrogen particles can bind to oxygen particles and also to hydrogen particles. This creates new substances: various nitrogen oxides and ammonia. We call these compounds ‘reactive nitrogen’, and that’s what everyone should really be saying: ‘the reactive nitrogen problem’. Only then do the sentences become so long and complicated.

Bad for health and nature

The first type of reactive nitrogen, ammonia, comes mainly from animal feces and is the most harmful to nature. The second type, nitrogen oxides, is released mainly into the air through the exhaust gases of cars, aircraft and factories. The amount of reactive nitrogen has been too high in the Netherlands for years and it is bad for nature (pdf; 1.4 MB), but it is also very unhealthy for humans. Therefore, the Council of State decided in 2019 that no more nitrogen may be added to our country.

That statement now has consequences. The National Rural Program indicates by area how much nitrogen emissions should be reduced by 2030, to give nature a chance for recovery. The provinces must make it clear by 1 July 2023 how they will achieve these goals. There are opportunities to reduce emissions in industry, construction and traffic, but especially in livestock farming. We must work more sustainably.

Among other things, farmers have to change their way of working and it is not a piece of cake.  So support those farmers who are doing well by buying their dairy!

The cabinet’s decision is difficult for many, but will in the long run ensure a healthier living environment for all. To give you an idea of ​​what happens in nature and for your health when too much nitrogen is added, below are some examples where nitrogen plays a role.

Bone decalcification in breasts

Veluwe is a well-known nature reserve where too much reactive nitrogen ends up in the soil and water. This makes the soil more acidic. This acid causes substances such as calcium (lime) to dissolve and disappear from the soil. It is the first problem for nature.

Like humans, birds need calcium for strong bones and eggshells. In Veluwe, it turned out a while ago that great tits are suffering from the disappearance of calcium. They now get so little through the food that the shell of some of the eggs is too thin or that chicks are already breaking their legs in the nest. Fortunately, this does not mean that it is the same in the rest of the country, but it is a clear example of the effect of too much nitrogen.

The snails have largely disappeared in Veluwe.  Can you guess who has that problem?

Insects die: less food for insectivores

Another example of the effect of calcium deficiency is the grouse, which is now almost extinct in the Netherlands. This is because the young do not find large enough insects anymore. Again, too much reactive nitrogen is one of the culprits (but not the only one, think also of pesticides, loss of habitat and so on). Due to too much reactive nitrogen, insects also find too little calcium (like great tits) to make strong shields, and then they die. The snails and woodlice have already disappeared in Veluwe.

A blackberry now and then is nice, but if they grow everywhere, there are few other plants (and insects) left

Some plants overgrow the rest

Another reason for the loss of nature and biodiversity is that all kinds of flowering plants disappear, including the insects that live on them. If there is too much reactive nitrogen, some plants (nettles, blackberries, grasses) can grow so hard that they completely displace other species.

Different composition of nutrients

Third, those plants that survive in an environment with too much reactive nitrogen also have problems. This changes the composition of the nutrients in their leaves. And this in turn affects the insects that eat these leaves: They weaken and also contain less good nutrients for the grouse and other insectivores, such as titmice. The sparrowhawk has problems with this, because it eats titmice. And so it goes on.

Weakening insects, weakening insectivores (like tall tit), weakening sparrowhawks ...

Habitats disappear

Too much reactive nitrogen can also lead to the disappearance of entire habitats affecting many animal species. In any case, the wheat suffers from it in the dunes, where some grasses and shrubs are happy with all the reactive nitrogen and grow very fast. Misery for wheat because its favorite habitat is open dunes with bare spots and heath with open areas. He needs that for his way of hunting: to hunt insects and flutter. Admittedly, it’s a little weird, but it’s just the way wheat does, and it’s not possible when the dune grows full. Wheat has more problems than this, but too much reactive nitrogen certainly does not help.

The wheat would like to run after insects.  This is not possible if the dune has become full due to too much reactive nitrogen

How bad nitrogen is for your health

Enough examples from nature. How unhealthy is reactive nitrogen really for humans? The Health Council says: after smoking, air pollution (the combination of particles and nitrogen dioxide) is one of the most important risk factors for health. Estimates of the number of premature deaths due to air pollution in the Netherlands are around 12,000 per year. These are primarily diseases of the airways or lungs. It is nothing. You do not smoke or try to quit, eat and exercise as healthy as possible, and so this.

All in all, more than enough reasons to do what can be done to reduce the amount of reactive nitrogen. Shoulders under it and go, on the way to a vibrant future.

Nothing new under the sun

Why is reactive nitrogen suddenly such a big problem? Well, that question is wrong. It has been known for decades that there is too much reactive nitrogen in the Netherlands. In order to reduce this amount and reserve money for the restoration of nature, the so-called PAS scheme (Programmatic Approach Nitrogen) was devised in 2015. It sounded good, but in practice there was actually extra discharge of reactive nitrogen, and nature recovery lagged behind. The scheme proved to be counterproductive, which is why the judge in 2019 ruled that it is not allowed to continue in this way.

Since then, however, Dutch politicians have followed the tactic of breaking in. Fortunately, clear decisions have now been made, with Vogelbescherming and other nature organizations seeing a good step forward. Of utmost importance here is adaptation per. territory. Farmers who do good for nature should not be affected by future measures.

We must also keep in mind that nitrogen is only one of the problems affecting the quality of nature in the Netherlands. The low water level and the use of pesticides also require a different approach. Vogelbescherming believes that this is also possible: a farm where farmers have a long-term perspective, earn well and where nature can recover.

Text: Bird protection Holland
Photos: Shutterstock; Jelle de Jong

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