WWhilst carbon dioxide as a harmful gas is at the center of the environmental debate in Germany, the Netherlands are currently primarily discussing their “nitrogen problem”. Not that CO2emissions and global warming would have lost importance in the neighboring country threatened by flooding. But nitrogen is what is driving angry farmers onto the streets and into the homes of politicians right now. More precisely: It is about nitrogen compounds, in the Dutch agricultural sector primarily ammonia, which is produced in excess in extremely intensive agriculture.
The government wants to significantly reduce emissions, and farmers see their livelihoods threatened. The protests have intensified over the past week. Farmers blocked motorways and country roads with tractors, in the east also border crossings to Lower Saxony. Bales of hay burned, a small group hit a police car with a hammer and an iron bar. Angry farmers gathered in front of the private home of the responsible minister, Christianne van der Wal, where they finally broke through a police cordon that had been set up in the meantime. And another parliamentarian received a visit.
Farmers feel like scapegoats
Prime Minister Mark Rutte spoke of “terrible pictures” from the NATO summit in Madrid. “This small group really crosses all borders.” Van der Wal, who belongs to Rutte’s right-wing liberal VVD party, is the focus of criticism as “Minister for Nature and Nitrogen”. The Ministry of Agriculture is one of those departments that has ministers of slightly different ranks: the actual “minister of” – in the case of agriculture, this is Henk Staghouwer from the small coalition partner, the Christian Union – and a “minister for” who takes care of special issues. In this case, a minister, namely van der Wal, whose department was only created when the new government was formed.
According to calculations by the statistics agency CBS, the Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural products after the United States – although the country is only about the size of North Rhine-Westphalia. The value of exports reached almost 105 billion euros in 2021. For many years, farmers were given incentives to expand farms – which is why they now feel duped by government plans to reduce livestock numbers. According to CBS data, the number of farms has roughly halved since 2000 to 52,000. On the other hand, the average cattle farmer now watches over 162 cattle, almost twice as many as back then. For pigs, the average has more than tripled to 3365 animals.
While agriculture contributes comparatively little to the emission of nitrogen oxides, according to a survey by the health authority RIVM, it is responsible for 85 percent of ammonia emissions, mainly from animal husbandry. The agricultural sector continues to be the biggest cause of all “nitrogen emissions”, as they are simply called. Incidentally, since 1990 emissions have fallen significantly from a high level: in the agricultural sector alone as well as overall.