1667494910 The nitrogen crisis is rotting the atmosphere in the Netherlands

The nitrogen crisis is rotting the atmosphere in the Netherlands

After starving to death in World War II, the Dutch said to themselves: never again. And they kept their word. This tiny country of 17 million people is now the second largest agricultural exporter (New Window) in the world, after the United States.

And the national herd reflects this reality: it is the highest livestock density in Europe. The Netherlands has four million cattle, 12 million pigs and 100 million chickens.

Portrait of Jan Douwe van der Ploeg.

Jan Douwe van der Ploeg is Emeritus Professor of Rural Sociology at Wageningen University Photo: Screenshot / Zoom

“Meat and milk are exported, but the manure stays here. That’s the problem. Our farm is way too big. Our fields do not have the capacity to absorb all of this. »

— A quote from Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Professor Emeritus, Wageningen University

Agronomist and specialist in rural sociology, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, says the crisis erupting today has been brewing for a long time. Already in the 1970s it was clear that our agriculture causes a lot of pollution and emits too much nitrogen and other elements. The first strategies to solve the problem date back to the 1980s but were a failure.

Portrait of Caroline van der Plas.

Caroline van der Plas, leader of the BoerBurgerBeweging (Peasant Citizens’ Movement) party, during a speech on nitrogen policy in The Hague on June 23, 2022Photo: anp/afp via getty images / BART MAAT

Farmers say they have already made major efforts to reduce pollution levels. They now manage to get good yields by reducing fertilizer by half. The leader of the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) ​​party, MP Caroline van der Plas, recently told the media (New window) that reducing the size of the Dutch herd will not reduce the global footprint of agriculture.

“Every cow we lose here is replaced by two or three animals elsewhere in the world. To reduce CO2, nitrogen or ammonia emissions, let farmers innovate and make production cleaner. »

— A quote from Caroline van der Plas, MP and leader of the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB)

The director of the National Institute of Ecology, Geert de Snoo, remains skeptical of such a speech. From the start we thought that with technology and precision farming we would eliminate emissions. But we have to be honest: in hindsight we see that it doesn’t work. In order to feed the herds that have been growing steadily over the decades, the Netherlands has to import the food intended for them on a massive scale. Soybeans come in shiploads from South America, while corn came mainly from Ukraine until recently. There is simply no space in the Netherlands to grow all these plants.

Portrait of Geert de Snoo.

Geert de Snoo is Director of the Netherlands Institute for Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) Photo: Screenshot / Zoom

“We have to produce respecting the limits of ecosystems. Importing fodder, getting stuck manure and saying that we “feed the world” even though we end up with a very polluted environment, that’s not a sustainable way of farming. The dream of feeding the world from very few acres makes no sense. »

— A quote from Geert de Snoo, director of the Netherlands Institute for Ecology and the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences of the Netherlands

An aerial view of cows in a field in the Netherlands.

Putting cows to pasture significantly reduces ammonia emissions because urine and manure don’t mix, unlike in stalls in the fields. Photo: Radio-Canada