August 16, 2022

The Trinke Elshof family has milked cows in northern Holland for more than three decades, but a recently proposed policy by the Dutch government to cut agricultural greenhouse gas emissions threatens to shut down their dairy farm.

Dairy cows are a hallmark of Dutch rural landscapes like windmills and canals. In cities, milk is routinely considered the beverage at work lunches, and cheese stores abound.

But soon thousands of farms may have to radically cut down their herds to comply with government policy. For farmers like Ms. Chouf, who hopes to pass 250 dairy cows to her two sons, the proposal portends disaster.

“We don’t know how we can work on our farm in the future,” said Ms. Al-Shouf, 54.

Dairy farmers like Ms. Elshof have been protesting since June, when the Dutch government presented plans to halve emissions of ammonia and nitrogen by 2030. Cattle release the chemicals through their urine and faeces.

Farmers’ advocates say the proposal threatens nearly all agriculture in the Netherlands – the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural commodities by value after the United States – at a time of rising global food insecurity due to the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s grain exports.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte visited a dairy farm on Thursday, a day before a meeting with farmers’ organizations on cutting emissions.


ANP Press / Zuma

Few countries are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than the Netherlands, where more than half of the population lives below sea level and is therefore at risk of flooding. But even in one of the world’s richest countries, voters and politicians oppose emissions-reduction policies that scientists say are causing average temperatures to rise.

Across Europe, shocks ranged from the French yellow vest movement that began in 2018 to repeated attacks on EU green policies from governments in Hungary and Poland. Battles, mainly between environmentalists and commercial interests, frequently pitted rural citizens against urban dwellers, upsetting national politics.

A government spokeswoman said Prime Minister Mark Rutte and advisers were meeting with Dutch farmers’ organizations on the issue for the first time on Friday. The meeting comes after a recent opinion poll indicated that Mr Rutte’s ruling centre-right party had fallen in popularity.

The Dutch protests were supported by anti-establishment politicians, including former President Donald Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen, especially after a Dutch police officer shot demonstrators in early July, wounding a tractor. The Public Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal investigation against the officer for attempted murder.

Farmers’ protests escalated, with some dumping manure on highways and hay bales set ablaze.


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According to leaked Dutch government estimates published by local media, nearly 11,200 cattle farms will have to close and 17,600 farmers will have to reduce their herds to meet emissions targets. A spokesman for the Ministry of Finance described the estimates as “calculation” and said the targets were still being revised.

“The government was hiding the consequences of its policy,” said Peter Omtzegt, an independent member of the Dutch parliament. “This is a sweeping change for the entire agricultural sector.”

Mr Omtzigt said the policy is being expedited by “without considering the consequences”. Mr. Root’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The timing of the vote on the bill is still unclear.

Thousands of farmers demonstrated across the Netherlands this summer by driving bannered tractors along country roads and chanting slogans in town squares. In a recent poll, nearly two-thirds of the Dutch population said they understood farmers’ concerns.

Some protesters rose from their movements, dumping manure on major highways and setting fire to hay bales. Police reported several accidents after motorists hit barriers.

In June, Mr. Rutte criticized how farmers were protesting.

The proposed policy would cut nitrogen and ammonia emissions by 50% to protect an EU-wide network of natural areas called Natura 2000. The natural area, many of which are privately owned, covers 18% of the EU’s land and more than 8% of its territory. A marine area, providing sanctuary for threatened species and habitats. Natura 2000 includes approximately 7% of the Netherlands.

Money is a sticking point in climate change negotiations around the world. While economists warn that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will cost trillions more than expected, the Wall Street Journal is looking at how the money will be spent, and who will pay. Illustration: Preston Jesse/The Wall Street Journal

Dutch government data show that nitrogen deposits exceed critical levels in designated natural areas, although they have decreased in recent decades.

“The task of agriculture in particular is huge,” said the government’s announcement of its nitrogen emissions policy.

The government said it would allocate an additional $24.7 billion on top of the $7.1 billion already in place to raise three-quarters of the Natura 2000 districts to a “healthy level” by 2030.

The government said farmers had three options: “to become more sustainable, move or finish.” [their businesses]. The government offers buyouts to farmers, but advocates say few have taken them.

Suggested nitrogen reduction rates range from 12% to 95% depending on the region. Mrs. Elshof’s farm, less than a mile from the Natura 2000 area, will have to reduce its nitrogen production by 70%.

“There is no way you can be a farmer with this policy,” said Sita van Kempema of Farmers Defense Force, a leading organization for Dutch farmers. Farmers, she said, “will lose everything as a result, and they will also be in a profession where you can no longer find work.”

“It is imperative that we buy farmers and that livestock will go down,” said Jesse Claver, head of the Dutch Green Party, adding that manufacturing and aviation must also change.

The Dutch agricultural sector generated about 7% of GDP in 2019, according to the Central Statistical Office. Nearly 52,000 Dutch agricultural companies employed more than 150,000 people in full-time jobs in 2020.

Farmers protesting the Dutch government’s policy on emissions swept into the village of Straw, east of Amsterdam, in late June.


ANP Press / Zuma

“The proposed policy would have disastrous effects not only on agriculture, but on the economic, social and cultural viability of rural areas of the Netherlands,” said Wytse Sonnema of LTO Netherlands, a national agricultural association.

Farmers began protesting in late 2019, after a Dutch court ruled that government laws to grant building permits and agricultural activities that emit large amounts of nitrogen violate EU legislation. Convoys of farmers drove tractors along major highways to government buildings in The Hague, their lights flashing in protest.

Protests resumed this summer after emissions targets were announced. Sonema said that one peaceful demonstration in a small village east of Amsterdam attracted about 15,000 people.

The protests, which included property destruction and road closures, drew sharp criticism from the government.

“Wherever possible, the police will track you down. The criminal record has consequences. Use your brain,” Justice Minister Dylan Yechiljuz Zegerios said on Twitter last month.

Ms Van Kempema of the Farmers Defense Force described the escalation of tactics as “a sign of the anger, but also the fear people feel for the lives they lead”.

Leaders in the Dutch agricultural technology sector say government-backed innovation is needed to help farmers.

One company, Lely Industries NV, is rolling out a system that separates cow manure from urine on barn floors, turning up to 70% of nitrogen emissions into fertilizer that farmers can use.

“This is an issue we are all dealing with, not just farmers,” said Andre Van Trost, CEO of Lely.

write to Lucy Papachristou at [email protected]

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