“Reducing livestock means empty shelves” — and examining three other claims

A closer look at the four statements you often hear. Let’s start with the last question: Do we really have a nitrogen problem?

1. “There is no nitrogen problem, it is only on paper”

“I think a lot of people don’t realize the scale of the nitrogen problem,” responds Margoline Demers, director of nature and the environment. Three months ago I showed Christian van der Waal (Nature and Nitrogen) what nitrogen does in a nature reserve. They visited the Campina region in North Brabant. “There’s usually a lot of biodiversity out there, and now it almost looks like a savannah. Lots of yellow grass. All kinds of flowers and butterflies are lost there.”

Bart Verheijen, climate specialist at RTL Nieuws, explains why. It orbits around ammonia, which is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. A lot of ammonia is emitted in agriculture, and most of it is absorbed into the soil. There it provides an excess of nutrients that benefit fast-growing species such as herbs, nettles, and blackberries. Then they remove the slow-growing species – responsible for biodiversity.

In addition, the ammonia in the soil is converted into nitrate, which leads to soil acidity. “As a result, other nutrients are no longer available to the plants. Over time, nature will obviously deteriorate.”

According to Demmers, nature is “completely saturated” with ammonia. This disrupts the soil. Plants and animals do not get the right nutrients. With all the attendant risks. From birds that get a little bit of lime, to oaks that are more susceptible to diseases and pests.

2- “Soon we will have empty shelves in the supermarket.”

But is it possible to get rid of all those cattle? Reducing livestock numbers will empty supermarket shelves. “People riot when the shelves are empty”, chirp Caroline van der Plas, MP for the BBB. It is a frequently heard argument. Fear image.

“This is bullshit,” says Bart Verheijn. “The bulk of the revenue from Dutch agriculture, especially from livestock farming, is for export.”

“The food supply is not really in danger,” says Roel Gungenel, a lecturer in agricultural policy at Wageningen University. “We export a large part of the food produced in the Netherlands, about 60 percent, to other countries. It’s not that if we take environmental measures here, we will have empty shelves in stores.”

This graph shows the consequences of the massive livestock industry; Too much manure:

3. “We should be grateful to the farmers”

All of these actions look as if farmers are being punished. You shouldn’t see it that way, says Associate Professor Jonginel. In fact, he believes that farmers in the Netherlands should be given more recognition. “In Western countries, only 4 percent of the working population provides our food. Thus we have entrusted an important task to a very small group of people who do it with dedication. The farmers should be recognized for that.”

Nor is it right that they are now a scapegoat. In fact, farmers have already worked hard to reduce nitrogen. “In 1990 we were at 350 million kilograms of ammonia emissions per year, we are now less than 150 million kilograms. So it’s about halving. They’ve already done a lot. It doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. Just: it’s not enough.”

Pap and stay hydrated

Fingers of blame should go to the government. “Politicians have been delaying nitrogen reduction for years,” Jonginel says. “It’s been a mess in recent years. In the meantime, the situation has gotten worse.”

For example, the European Nature Conservation Act has been circumvented by the Programmatic Approach to Nitrogen (PAS): activities that resulted in higher nitrogen emissions can continue, provided that additional emissions are compensated elsewhere. In practice, the latter did not happen often, as a result of which the State Council declared the Performance Appraisal Act illegal in 2019.

Some farmers rightly feel attacked. “Time is now very short and the sector has to take the right direction, so to speak. From a management point of view, some mistakes have been made.”

Nitrogen: what’s new?

The government has its back on the wall. The Netherlands must comply with European nature protection laws that it has been violating for years. Judges are denying housing, road building, and business permits on a large scale, because they lead to more nitrogen emissions.

Nitrogen emissions in a number of regions should fall by 70 to 95 percent within eight years, is the current plan of the national government. The 12 county governments are required to inform Minister Christian van der Waal within a year of how this reduction has been achieved.

4. “The nitrogen decision is a death sentence for many farmers.”

Many farmers fear that they will have to stop their business. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, the nitrogen decree is not about the number of farmers, but rather about the number of animals that are raised.

For example, biodynamic farmers are expected to avoid reducing livestock, because they keep fewer animals and practice circular farming: circular farming is the link between arable farming and livestock farming: animals eat the remaining flows of land. Manure is the raw material for crops. For many biodynamic farmers, this amounts to one hectare of cows per hectare of field.

“It is said that farms that are hundreds of years old will disappear, but this is absolutely not necessary,” a biodynamic farmer told RTL Nieuws. “There should be fewer livestock. It’s about the animals.”

Price tag to the consumer

Associate Professor Jongnell says fewer animals usually results in fewer farmers. “Another option is that the margin per liter of milk, for example, goes up. Then the farmer with fewer animals can also earn a reasonable income, but there is a price to the consumer and the chain.”

Finally, Demmer from Natuur en Milieu says: “The measures should not be seen as a threat, rather they should be considered a lifeline for farmers. With this package and with all kinds of financial resources, we hope that farmers will seize this opportunity to develop a future-proof company. Choose to act now. Adapt or stop. This does justice to what they created. Of course, this is very impressive for cultivators, but this plan is what they need.”

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