Explained: Why the Netherlands are considering a herd reduction proposal

The Netherlands is considering proposals, the most radical of its kind in Europe, to reduce the herd by 30% by forcing farmers to sell their emission rights and even their land to the state.

What is the proposal?

Officials from the Netherlands Ministry of Finance and Agriculture have presented proposals to reduce the number of cattle by nearly a third of its population.

The Netherlands is the EU’s biggest meat exporter. It also has one of the largest livestock industries in Europe, with more than 100 million cattle, chickens and pigs. The country had average densities of 14 goats, 93 cattle, 298 pigs and 2,372 poultry per km2 and 414 people per km2 in 2018.

The proposal states that the herd should be reduced by 30 percent by forcing some farmers to sell emission rights and even their land to the state, if necessary, the Guardian reported.

This follows a growing public debate in the country about the effects of animal production on human health and the environment. The debate had found new impetus after the Q fever epidemic that hit the most densely populated farming areas in the country in 2007-10.

What is the reason for such a plan?

The Netherlands is grappling with an acute climate crisis caused by excess nitrogen emissions. The concern about cattle is that they produce manure which, when mixed with urine, releases ammonia, which is a nitrogenous compound.

This ammonia, via agricultural runoff, can enter water bodies, in which case excess nitrogen will damage sensitive natural habitats. Nitrogen can lead to algae which depletes oxygen on the water surface.

A study published in Elsevier last year said animal production is causing alarming pollution of groundwater with nitrates.

The article states: “In addition to undesirable impacts on soil functioning, nitrogen in the soil, which is largely attributable to animal production, seeps into groundwater primarily as nitrate (NO3- )… In 2012-2015, this led to exceeding the standard (50 mg nitrate / L) in 47% of the sandy soil region, 8% of the clay region, 60% of the farms in the loess region and none of the peat region holdings. Exceeding standards influences the production of drinking water and the quality of surface water. The percentage of farms exceeding the standard was different specifically on dairy farms.

The study also indicates that runoff and leaching of nutrients from soils and groundwater leads to eutrophication due to which nitrogen concentrations exceed the norm at 50-65% of measuring points in the sand region and in about 40-60% in the clay region between 2011 and 2014.

In addition, deposition of nitrogen compounds can also affect terrestrial ecosystems through acidification and eutrophication. The study indicated that 60% of the surface of the country’s natural areas is exposed to nitrogen deposition above the critical load values ​​for specific natural target types.

He adds: “Animal production in the Netherlands contributes around 40% of total nitrogen deposition, mainly through ammonia emissions. The largest contribution to ammonia emissions comes from cattle with 63%, followed by pigs with 21% and poultry with 11%. Changes in total nitrogen deposition do not proportionately affect changes in exceeding the critical load. When it is assumed that there are no emissions from livestock, the exceedance increases from about 60% to about 15%.

How serious is the crisis in the Netherlands?

The issue has been a huge concern in the country as it has been battling what it calls a “nitrogen crisis” for some time now.

In May 2019, the Dutch Administrative Court of the Council of State, which is the highest administrative body in the Netherlands, ruled that the government was breaking EU law by not doing enough to reduce the excess nitrogen in vulnerable natural areas. The court said the government’s Nitrogen Action Program (PAS), a program to limit the effects of nitrogen, was insufficient.

After that, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality commissioned an outside body to offer solutions to the crisis. Therefore, on December 17, 2020, a new law to reduce nitrogen emissions was approved by the Dutch Parliament.

According to a report by the Global Agriculture Information Network, the new law sets three objectives: 40% of Natura-2000 areas sensitive to nitrogen must be below the critical deposition value (

The law aims to halve nitrogen emissions from construction activities and agriculture by 2035.

The Netherlands has also implemented other strict measures to deal with the crisis, including reducing the daytime speed limit to 100 km / h on motorways to limit emissions of nitrogen oxides and l stopping energy-intensive construction projects.

But the emission of greenhouse gases by livestock remains a matter of concern in the country.

According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the livestock sector contributes 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It generates 65% of nitrogen dioxide of human origin, the global warming potential of which is 310 times that of CO2.

What was the reaction to the proposal to reduce the herd?

Environmentalists widely praised the plan and said it was a positive step to reduce nitrogen emissions in the country.

However, farmer groups strongly opposed the plan, blocking roads with tractors to protest proposals to limit ammonia from animal waste.

Wytse Sonnema, head of public affairs at the Netherlands Agriculture and Horticultural Organization (LTO), told the Guardian that the state taking over land from farmers was a bad idea. “This is a government land grab that does not fit with good governance. The other reason is very practical: expropriation takes five to seven years to have results, and in many cases longer. We don’t have that time, and of course it’s much more expensive, ”Sonnema said.

The Guardian report also said most parties want a more voluntary approach in this regard, with Christian Democrat Appeal spokesperson Derk Boswijk quoted as saying the expropriation can be disastrous for the government. “In the Netherlands there is already a 3% per year contraction in the agricultural sector, many farmers have no one to trust, and it is expected that in 10 to 15 years 40% to 50% will have stopped anyway. The forced expropriation plans… are disastrous for support and confidence in the government, ”said Boswijk.

Even when the law to reduce nitrogen emissions was approved by the Dutch parliament last year, it met with considerable opposition. Several parties like the PVV (Party for Freedom), the Green Left, the Party for the Animals and the Labor Party (PvdA) had argued that the law was not ambitious enough to reduce nitrogen emissions.

The Forum for Democracy, which voted against the law, said at the time that the only intention was to decimate the agricultural sector. LTO had said the law was a test for the industry and had an “unachievable goal” for 2035.

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