Dairy farmers are up in arms over emission cuts
By Claire Moses
© The New York Times Co.
WOUDENBERG, NETHERLANDS »
The dairy farmers of the Netherlands have set fire to hay and manure along highways, dumped trash on roads to create traffic jams and blockaded food distribution centers with tractors, leading to empty shelves in supermarkets. Upside-down flags wave from farmhouses in protest.
The anger of the farmers is directed at the government, which has announced plans for a national 50% reduction of nitrogen emissions by 2030 — in line with European Union requirements to preserve protected nature reserves — that they believe unfairly targets them. Factories and cars also emit large amounts of nitrogen and have not been targeted, they say, although the government said cuts associated with both polluters would be addressed in the future.
Agriculture is responsible for the largest share of nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands, much of it from waste produced by the 1.6 million cows that provide the milk to make the country’s cheeses.
To realize those planned cuts, thousands of farmers will be required to significantly reduce livestock numbers and the size of their farming operations. If they cannot meet the cuts that the government demands of them, they may be forced to close their operations altogether.
The government has set aside about $26 billion to carry out its plan, and some of that will be used to help farmers build more sustainable operations — or buy them out, if possible.
“My livelihood and my network is being threatened,” said Ben Apeldoorn, whose farm in Utrecht has about 120 cows producing milk for cheese. “You’re just no longer allowed to exist,” said Apeldoorn, 52, who has been a farmer for 30 years.
But activists and ecologists say that drastic measures are needed to cut emissions and allow the Netherlands to do its part to address global warming — an aim that has become more urgent this summer as Europe faces record temperatures and drought.
And they say the agriculture sector has to change.
“If you have less livestock, you have less manure and less production of nitrogen,” said Wim van der Putten, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology.
The World Wide Fund for Nature and other environmental organizations wrote in a letter to the Dutch minister of agriculture this month that “the transition to a sustainable agricultural and food system is urgent and necessary.” The letter also said that consumers in the Netherlands needed to do their part to make sure emissions targets were reached.
“Consumers also have to take responsibility,” it said. “Dutch people will have to consume more vegetables and fewer (-70%) animal proteins.”
Farmers say they are frustrated that the government is not doing enough to find technical innovations or other ways to cut emissions to avoid reducing livestock numbers. But, van der Putten said, technical solutions are not enough to realize the level of cuts needed, given the amount of nitrogen the country pumps out, much of it from the production of eggs, dairy and meat.