This note about nitrogen is making the rounds on social media, but is it true?

Farmers’ handkerchiefs on car mirrors and upside-down Dutch flags on lampposts, the farmers’ protests are fully visible. Farmers are not only supported on the street, but also through social media. Some messages circulate very quickly, but what is really true? We checked this list which is being circulated via Facebook among supporters of the farmers.

Written by

Sanne Hoeks

The scrap paper paints a picture of the situation in the Netherlands in 1950 and now. This is what the letter reads:

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As you can see, the number of inhabitants in the Netherlands has increased and the number of cows has remained the same. The number of farms has fallen sharply, and so has the emission of ammonia. There are more than 63 times as many cars and 165 times as many Schiphol passengers.

Numbers checked
We checked these figures against data from Statistics Netherlands (CBS). Statistics Netherlands has a statutory duty to provide reliable statistical information and is independent.

The list’s message is clear: Cars and Schiphol have become much more harmful to the environment, while farmers have remained roughly the same. In addition, the emission of ammonia has even decreased.

Some figures on the cut paper are (almost) correct, with other figures it is more nuanced. For example, the number of inhabitants and the number of farms are correct and the number of cars in 1950 is even slightly lower than stated: 121,000 instead of 140,000.

The number of passengers on flights arriving and departing from Schiphol was 25.4 million in 2021 and thus not 58 million as stated on the scrap paper. But the number of passengers in 2021 and 2020 gives a distorted picture, because there were far fewer flights due to the corona crisis. Before corona, in 2019, there were around 71 million passengers at Schiphol.

Ammonia emissions unclear
The ammonia emission is now roughly correct and is probably, just like on the clipboard, less than in 1950. But we cannot say that for sure, because CBS has only had control of it since 1990. So where the figure from 1950 comes from is a mystery.

Statistics Netherlands indicates that the peak of ammonia emissions was probably somewhere in the mid-1980s. “After that, the manure legislation started with rules for low-emission fertilizer spreading and milk quotas. For years further back in time, the number of cattle, pigs and chickens gives an indication of ammonia emissions, with the caveat that the cow from 1950 is different from the cow in 2022.”

Note paper on the nitrogen crisis circulating on social media.
Note paper about the nitrogen crisis circulating on social media.

‘And now the farmer has done it’
Okay, so the numbers are partially correct, but what about the statement, “And now the farmer did it?”

It’s a little more nuanced. We asked specialist professor of economics and environmental policy at Tilburg University, Herman Vollebergh, to interpret the scrap paper. “These are interesting numbers, but they are not the whole story. There are actually about the same number of cows as there were in 1950, but they are kept much more intensively with a persistently high level of manure discharge.”

In addition, he says that it is difficult to compare emissions from traffic and emissions from agriculture. “You cannot compare the effect of one kilogram of ammonia emissions from agriculture with one kilogram of nitrogen emissions from combustion engines in airplanes and cars. Furthermore, nitrogen from agriculture precipitates much closer, which is why agriculture close to nature reserves is a bigger problem.”

Vollebergh adds: “In recent years, nitrogen emissions (released into the air) from industry and traffic have fallen enormously. Agriculture is lagging behind in that respect. But that does not change the fact that nitrogen is not the whole story when it comes to nature conservation. There are several ways to improve the quality of our natural areas, and reducing nitrogen emissions is just one of them.”

So the farmers have not necessarily ‘done it’, but the fact is that agriculture emits the most nitrogen of all sectors, and that we feel the consequences closer to home than industry and traffic.

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