The facts at a glance: What exactly is nitrogen, and what’s the problem? † Currently

Cabinet nitrogen targets once again led to massive protests among Dutch farmers on Friday. For those who missed the thread on this long-running file, NU.nl will list the facts. Because what exactly happens?

First, a little chemistry: The atmosphere is made up of about 80 percent nitrogen (N). This is natural and harmless to humans, animals and plants. We even need nitrogen to live: four-fifths of every breath is made up of nitrogen.

But if nitrogen is associated with oxygen (O) or hydrogen (H), then reactive nitrogen is formed, and these substances are harmful to people and nature. Such as nitrogen oxide (NOx) or ammonia (NH3). These nitrogen oxides are mainly emitted by industry and traffic. Agriculture is largely responsible for ammonia emissions.

Reactive nitrogen is harmful to nature for several reasons. Some types of plants grow faster on nitrogen, so they benefit from a man-made surplus of nitrogen. For example, orchids and herbs are overgrown with nettles. Ultimately, this leads to a loss of biodiversity. Not only in terms of plants, but also because of the impact of the habitat of animals that benefited from the disappearing plants. Then nature eventually consists of fewer plant and animal species.

The Netherlands has 162 areas called Natura 2000, which must be protected according to European rules in order to preserve biodiversity. This does not work well, because there is a lot of nitrogen in ninety of those protected natural areas.



The Netherlands has the highest nitrogen emissions in Europe: per hectare, our country emits about four times the European rate. Other countries must also comply with nitrogen guidelines to protect nature, but in the Netherlands this is a much bigger problem. We have a lot of livestock (so a lot of nitrogen emissions) on a small surface and often next to nature reserves. That is why the situation here is much worse than, for example, in Germany. This country is much larger and the industrial and agricultural areas are not close to nature reserves as they are here.

In short: something must be done about that harmful nitrogen, as the judge also decided a few years ago previously. The nitrogen problem is not at all new. But for years, industry and farming permits have been granted with the idea: We’ll offset these nitrogen emissions later. Only this never happened.

In 2019, the State Council decided that was no longer the case. After all, nitrogen emissions have already increased. Shortly thereafter, the first actions were taken. The maximum speed on the highway during the day was from 130 to 100 kilometers per hour. Nor were more permits issued to build homes in the Natura 2000 areas (which is necessary in light of the housing shortage). These were temporary solutions. Now a larger permanent plan is being worked on.

In some areas, emissions must be reduced by up to 95 percent. “This is a bit like the day we all knew was coming,” said Minister Christian van der Waal (Nature and Nitrogen).

Agriculture is the first to be addressed in the new nitrogen approach, because nearly half (46 percent) of all nitrogen in the Netherlands comes from agriculture. Those farms are often located near the Natura 2000 areas. In addition, about a third of them come from abroad across the border. Road traffic is responsible for more than 6 per cent, as are families. The rest, about 10 percent, comes from aviation, shipping, industry and construction.

Although farmers are responsible for a very large portion of nitrogen emissions, in the future less nitrogen must be emitted in all sectors. No later than October 1, industry, transportation and other sectors will participate.

The counties will determine exactly how nitrogen emissions from farms are reduced. They should come up with a plan by the summer of 2023 at the latest. Each region may deviate slightly from each region’s nitrogen targets, but in general, the national target should be met. By 2030, three-quarters of nature reserves should have a safe nitrogen level again.

This means: nationwide, nitrogen emissions must be halved. In some areas, the entire space will have to be repaired to achieve the goals. Many farmers will have to stop, downsize, or start operating in a different, more sustainable way. There is money to buy farmers, but many farmers don’t just want to close or adjust their business – it’s often their work in their lives.



Although it is a huge blow to farmers, it would not be disastrous for Dutch food production if (many) farms were to disappear or shrank. 70 percent of what farmers produce in the Netherlands goes abroad. So even if there were fewer farmers or if they were producing less food, there would be enough to supply the Netherlands with food.

In response to the announced nitrogen plans, a large group of farmers protested at Minister van der Waal’s home Friday night. The Farmers’ Defense Group also announced a large-scale demonstration on Wednesday, June 22nd.

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