The ‘ambitious’ plan of the Netherlands to reduce nitrogen emissions with the buy-out of hundreds of farms

The Netherlands is trying to reduce its nitrogen emissions between unsuccessful measures and distrust among farmers. The latest plan is to buy out the largest nitrogen emitters, mostly hundreds of farms.

Cows eating in Holysloot, a little village near Amsterdam
Cows eating in Holysloot, a little village near Amsterdam | © Ronnie Overgoor, 2019

The Netherlands has been struggling to reduce its nitrogen emissions despite its goal to halve them by 2030, creating tensions between authorities and farmers, on the edge about the issue for several years.

Johan Remkes, a longtime politician and government mediator on the nitrogen situation, presented and shared a report to find a way “out of the impasse” to the House of representatives of the Netherlands on October 5.

The government on October 14 reviewed and overall accepted the plan even though it finds it “ambitious” with an extremely short deadline.

The report alerted that the Netherlands needs to drastically reduce its nitrogen emissions “in the very short term in order to make nature restoration possible.” As such, Mr. Remkes, “with a heavy heart,” proposed that the country should buy out 500 to 600 large nitrogen emitters within a year, in both agricultural and industrial sectors at a fair price, to make room for nature restoration. Most of them will be large agricultural businesses but no details have been laid out, yet.

This drastic proposal was for Mr. Remkes the “lesser of all evils” and was expected to affect only 1 percent of agricultural businesses and a hand of industrial companies.

The government wants to act quickly and have its plan ready by November in order to find an agreement with the agricultural industry in the beginning of 2023. But there will be no forced expropriation. Entrepreneurs will first be given the opportunity to adapt or change their operations, transitioning from cattle to crops for instance. Then, the government will consider voluntary buy-outs.

But the government doubts this could be completed within a year, although the country has been too slow in reducing nitrogen emissions.

Reducing nitrogen emissions to limit further nature deterioration

About 14 percent of the Netherlands is labeled as Natura 2000 areas. And they need to be protected under the Habitat directive of the European Union from 1992. But much of this nature is degrading and is exposed to too much nitrogen, according to the report.

Nitrogen emissions, and precipitations that go in soil, have two roots: Ammonia, which comes from agriculture and mostly manure from livestock, and nitrogen oxides, which come from industrial plants and transportation. Although manure can be used as a fertilizer and some plants like blackberries or thistles thrive with nitrogenous soil, an excess of nitrogen deposit deteriorates the environment. In a list of the 100 largest ammonia emitters in the country, the top 3 were industrial companies but nine in ten were livestock farms. And nitrogen has become an issue for 90 out of the 162 Natura 2000 sites in the country.

Moreover, any projects involved around these sites cannot deteriorate nature under the Habitat directive. The situation is so pressing that Mr. Remkes even anticipated that the Netherlands could soon be close to a lock down situation as the country would not be able to build houses, roads, or operate farms.

Measures to reduce nitrogen levels over the past years have failed to show results in the Netherlands.

In 2019, the Council of State ruled that the Dutch plan for the reduction of nitrogen emissions wasn’t sufficient and was in violation of European conservation legislation. It questioned at the same time the legal validity of operating licenses granted by the state for about 2,500 farmers who expanded their livestock. Since 2015, the Nitrogen Approach Program indeed has been requiring that activities resulting in nitrogen precipitation need a permit to operate.

With this buy-out scheme, room for nitrogen emissions would be given to granting permits to these livestock farmers, allowing for construction projects, and nature restoration.

Large protests of farmers in the Netherlands

The issue with nitrogen has been putting farmers on edge as they don’t feel considered and supported by authorities. They also consider rural areas to be blamed for everyone else and need to pay for nitrogen issued by the Randstad, the urban area comprising of the country’s four largest cities Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht.

In June, Christianne van der Wal, the minister for Nature and Nitrogen Policy, released a detailed nitrogen map showing where emissions should be reduced. Some rural areas needed to decrease emissions by more than 90 percent. The map sparked vivid reactions from the agricultural industry which felt offended. It led to some of the largest protests of farmers the Netherlands has ever seen this summer. A group of farmers also went to the minister’s home at night in June to express their anger. After the presentation of Mr. Remke’s report, Minister Van der Wal said she was sorry that her plan caused unrest and concerns among farmers and considered the map was off the table. It may be replaced by a regional map with fewer details.

The minister of Agriculture Henk Staghouwer resigned in September, considering he was not the right person to handle the situation with no solution to bring a better perspective to farmers. Piet Adema was appointed as the new minister in early October.

In a context of stiff mistrust towards authorities, the Remke report had been received with mixed feelings by farmers’ organizations.

Agractie Nederland, an action group that started as the organizer of a farmers’ protest in October 2019, considered that forced buy-outs would be a red line. Farmers Defence Force, an agricultural advocacy group created in May 2019, said after the Remke report that they would “never, ever accept the expropriation of 500 innocent farm families to create a temporary artificial solution.”

ZLTO, a trade organization representing 12,000 farmers and horticulturists, asked its members their opinion about the report. The 2,500 respondents were divided between strong approval and strong rejection of the proposals. However, in line with the government’s view, its members were all skeptical that authorities would realistically complete the buy-outs within one year.

The efficiency of voluntary buy-outs in question

On October 3, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency alerted that voluntary buy-outs of farms in the past 25 years only yielded small results. They would mainly be an opportunity for farmers who were close to retirement with no successors. On the other hand, expropriation may take years to proceed with appeal procedures.

In February 2020, 350 million euros were already allocated by the government to a voluntary buy-out scheme for livestock farmers. Yet, only a small part of it has been spent to buy 20 farms nationwide so far. Some conditions for buy-outs changed along the way. But proposals also didn’t seem attractive enough.

For the Gelderland region, which aims to reduce nitrogen emissions by up to 40 percent in the agriculture sector by 2025, the issue lies more in the budget available for buy-outs than volunteers. Between 5 and 10 agricultural companies request a buy-out each week in the region. But only 13 of them got bought out by the region, so far.

These acquisitions enabled a reduction of 57 metric tons of nitrogen, miles away from the region’s objective of 1,000 tons by 2025. With the end of the 13 businesses, the region got 20 hectares of land back (49 acres). But it spent 32 million euros ($31 million). And the region has only 100 million euros ($97 million) budgeted for 2022 and 2023 to meet its goal.

For Greenpeace Netherlands, the measures in the report didn’t meet their expectations because Mr. Remke stuck to a reduction target for 2030, which the government kept, instead of 2025. It also pointed out that the buy-outs would be used to make some already existing farming activities legal and allow the construction of highways instead of actually drastically reducing nitrogen emissions.

Meanwhile, a small but growing number of farmers reportedly decide to leave the Netherlands for Germany, Denmark, Sweden or even Canada because of the regulations imposed upon them, the issue with nitrogen, restrictions to use phosphate or the end of milk quotas.

Read more about the Netherlands

Rapport Remkes 'Wat wel kan – Uit de impasse en een aanzet voor perspectief', House of Representatives of the Netherlands, October 2022Progress Report on Gelderland Nitrogen Measures 2021-2025, Gelderland Region, October 2022New steps to tackle nitrogen pollution offer prospects for farmers, Government of the Netherlands, 2020

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