Netherlands: Nitrogen emissions policy criticized as weak

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/peterschreiber.media
© GettyImages/peterschreiber.media

Related tags: nitrogen emissions reduction, Netherlands

The Dutch government’s plan to reduce nitrogen-based pollution lacks ambition, according to the final report from the Advisory Council, a committee set up to advise the Dutch officials on such emissions reduction.

In particular, the committee found that the government’s target of 26% emissions reduction by 2030 does not go far enough. The reduction, according to the Advisory Council publication, should be at least 50% - and it should be legally binding as well.

In 2019, the Dutch ministry of agriculture, commissioned an external body to propose a number of short- and long-term solutions in an attempt to solve the ongoing nitrogen crisis in the Netherlands.  That external body, the Advisory Council, was led by Johan Remkes, a former deputy prime minister of the Netherlands.

The Council published its first report at the end of September 2019, and this month, it released its final recommendations to reduce nitrogen emissions.

Remkes advocates for ‘low-emission agriculture’ using less fertilizer. 

“Agriculture must make the biggest effort because it is responsible for 40% of nitrogen emissions in the form of ammonia,​” he said.

He also argued that the government needs to implement clearer rules for that sector.

The Council proposes as well that the Dutch government designate a greater number of nature reserves as part of Natura 2000, the EU's patchwork of nature protection areas.

Nitrogen is more difficult to control than phosphorus levels, due to the gaseous losses and external influences, factors such as weather conditions, the type and quality of forage used on the individual farms, the soil on that farm, and how a dairy holding is run, Henk Flipsen, director, Nevedi, told us in May 2019​.

Culling helped the dairy sector to meet the phosphate reduction targets, but a decrease in nitrogen output will require another line of attack: “The nitrogen issue is not just about how many cows a farm has. It has much more to do with farm management, so it is more complicated [than phosphate reduction]," ​he said.

'Unattainable goals'

Reacting to the Council’s recommendations, Geesje Rotgers, of the Agricultural Mesdag Fund, said the goal of 50% reduction in nitrogen emissions in a decade is not realistic.

The Dutch Organization for Agriculture and Horticulture (LTO) also found the recommendations problematic. “The Netherlands, as a small, densely populated and industrious country with many unattainable nature goals, has walked into a dead-end tunnel.”

The fundamental question, said the LTO, is “do we want a realistic balance between living, working, agriculture, and nature, and are we prepared to invest in that?”

The Dutch minister for agriculture, Carola Schouten, meanwhile has opted to increase the size of a buyout scheme for swine farmers by €275m (US$309m) - bringing the total size of the fund to €455m. That initiative compensates Dutch swine farmers who wish to vacate the industry. 

The increased funding enables the Ministry to honor all applications that meet the requirements of the scheme. Consequently, all pig farmers who have registered and meet the requirements will be compensated, resulting in a total of 910,645 pig rights being withdrawn from the market, found the USDA in a report on the issue​.

If all these rights represented actual pigs taken out of the market, the Dutch swine herd would decrease by an estimated 8%, according to the USDA FAS bureau in The Hague.

However, the USDA believes the effect of these farmers leaving the market will be less severe.

“It is anticipated that there will only be a slight reduction in pork production in the Netherlands because fewer piglets and hogs will be exported to Germany meaning a higher proportion of Dutch hogs will be fattened and slaughtered domestically.”

Stepwise approach

Wageningen University & Research (WUR) recently presented a stepwise approach that helps policy makers to develop a nitrogen strategy per nature preservation area, said Dr Gert van Duinkerken, business unit manager, WUR.

He told us that reducing 50% of the nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands by 2030 is very ambitious, and would be costly to achieve.

All sectors contributing to nitrogen emissions should assess their opportunities to contribute to a reduction, including agriculture, he continued. 

"Within the livestock sectors, the highest potential gains are to be found in dairy farming. We should look at both technical and management options, and at the preconditions for these measures.

"Mitigation options can be found in reducing nitrogen input: animal diets with lower protein levels, efficient use of organic manure, and the use of legumes, to reduce the use of N fertilisers. Technical measures such as air scrubbers, low-emission floors, etc., should be complemented by management measures such as more frequent grazing of cows or the dilution of manure with water before applying it on the field.

"Furthermore, it would be very effective if we can move away from slurry based systems, and innovate to separate urine and feces, close to the source (the animal)."

The combination of all such measures has the potential to significantly reduce nitrogen emissions, he said. 

Factors key to this outcome, according to the WUR representative, include the following actions:

  • Put the end goal​ at the center of the regulations, not the means​ by which the goal must be achieved. So, give farmers the freedom to achieve that by the means they think best fits their business, taking into account their specific (regional) conditions.
  • Support farmers financially to invest in these measures, or develop other business models to safeguard the economic viability of farms.
  • Enabling on-farm monitoring/measuring, so farmers can monitor and control their N emissions, as well as other relevant farm performance indicators.

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