Explanation of the top 50
Emission figures in this list were calculated on the basis of data from RIVM, the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency, Statistics Netherlands, the provinces of Nord-Brabant, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland, Limburg and the European Environment Agency. The numbers represent kilograms of methane in its most recent available year, 2019.
Notes on the menu
A cow emits 17 times as much methane as normal pigs. However, pig farms top the list of the largest sources of methane emissions. This is because, on average, pig farms keep far more animals than dairy farms. However, this does not mean that pig farms are a bigger problem for the climate. Pigs only emit methane through their droppings. By fermenting dung, the amount of methane released into the air can be reduced by tens of percent. On the other hand, dairy farmers have much more difficulty controlling methane emissions, because it does not escape through manure, but directly from the cow’s stomach.
Furthermore, it is good to keep in mind that livestock farmers not only contribute to the global warming effect through methane. Their footprint is increasing due to the forage they have to provide to animals (a third of the world’s cropland is currently used to grow livestock feed such as soybeans, sometimes at the expense of valuable wildlife) and transportation of their animals by land and by sea. Beef has the largest footprint of all foodstuffs: nearly sixty kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of meat.
The third caveat is that large meat and dairy manufacturers, such as FrieslandCampina, are missing from the list. They do not have to report the emissions of their products. In recent studies, such as milking the planet And Impossible emissions Environmental groups point out that meat and dairy are highly concentrated industries, with much of the production held in the hands of a few multibillion-dollar companies. For example, the world’s five largest meat and dairy companies together will have higher emissions than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP. They impose all kinds of quality requirements on their suppliers, dairy farmers, except for methane emissions. They may do so by simply holding them accountable for the total footprint of their products.
Milieudefensie made an estimate for the Netherlands and concluded that the three big companies, FrieslandCampina, Vion (meat) and the VanDrie Group (calves) together, released 32.6 million tons of CO2-equivalent in 2019 – one and a half times that of Tata Steel. However, we didn’t include dairy and meat producers on our list because we’d then count twice: After all, the producers’ footprint is largely shaped by methane emissions from their suppliers, the farmers already on the list.
How did we rank for the largest source of methane emissions in livestock?
RIVM is responsible for the correct recording of all emissions in the Netherlands, including methane. However, the institute does not publish figures per animal or per company, only per animal category dairy, breeding and beef products. RIVM adopts these aggregates from the Climate and Energy Outlook 2021 (KEV) from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL).
The KEV also contains the number of animals per class per year. These numbers, in turn, come from Statistics Netherlands and are based on data from livestock breeders. Every April, farmers are required to report how many cattle or pigs they currently have in their stables.
We divided the methane emissions for each category by the number of animals in each category. In this way we arrive at the average emissions per livestock and per pig per year. The “emission factor” for dairy cows is 130 kg/year, for cows 33 kg/year and for pigs 10 kg/year. We’ve checked with the RIVM: These are the same numbers the institute uses to calculate totals in the national emissions registry.
The next number we needed was the number of animals per company† There is one central database with reliable figures on the number of animals on each farm and that is the Geographical Information System Agricultural Companies (GIAB). But this database is not public. It is jointly funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and managed by Wageningen Research University. Government services such as RIVM are allowed to browse, but journalists are not. The argument for this secrecy: peasant privacy. This argument is debatable (after all, what does the number of animals reveal about the owner’s private life?) but it takes time. Instead, we took a detour: Permissions For farmers, because they are general.
In an environmental permit, a livestock farmer requests permission for a number of “animal places”. This is the maximum number of animals he can keep in his stables at the same time. However, this says nothing about the actual number of animals in the stables. It is very common for farmers to request a permit for more animal places than they intend to fill immediately. This prevents them from having to apply for a permit again when their livestock are expanded.
We only required permits from the provinces of Nord-Brabant, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland and Limburg, because they have the largest number of cattle and pigs (seventy percent of the total in the Netherlands) within their borders. In total, this relates to more than 20,000 statements.
By comparing the animal numbers according to Statistics Netherlands with the places of animals according to permits (in 2019), we were able to calculate the average occupancy of the barn for cattle and pigs. Cattle stables appear to be empty at an average of 37 percent and pig stables at an average of 4 percent. These numbers are consistent with the experiences of the environmental inspectors we spoke to. We then reduced the places of the animals by these percentages to get a more realistic figure for the actual number of animals on the farms. We then multiply this corrected number for each company by the emission factor for the animals. This is how we arrive at the emissions figures in the list.
However, the licenses contain only corporate addresses and not names. To keep track of company names, we used Google Maps, Google Street View, Chamber of Commerce, and a few liters of gasoline.