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Dutch Farmers protesting against the government’s order to reduce 30% of cows

Dutch Farmers protesting against the government’s order to reduce 30% of cows

Farmers protested in the Netherlands as lawmakers voted Tuesday on proposals to cut emissions of harmful pollutants, a plan that is likely to force farmers to reduce their cattle herds or stop working altogether.

The government says emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia, which are produced by livestock, must be drastically reduced near natural areas that are part of a network of protected habitats for endangered plants and wildlife that stretches across 27 nations of the European Union.

Prints of chaos have taken over Dutch political news as a result of the Government’s plans to halve nitrogen oxide emissions by 2030. The planned measures are much more drastic than what has been seen so far in other countries: reduce 30% of the total head of cattle through incentives for farmers to voluntarily sell their farms or, if necessary, through expropriations.

“The transition is inevitable,” says the Government, which sees three options for farmers: transform and become more sustainable, move to another site or close the business. “There is no other option”, said the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, unleashing the wrath of the sector. The government coalition parties have agreed to spend 24,500 million euros to buy farms.

“Our farm is affected by a 70% reduction in head of cattle. If I have to give up 70% of my cows, we’re going out of business. What industry can afford to give up 70% of its revenue?” asks Stefan Mulder, a cheesemaker. “As an industry, we have technically done a lot [to reduce pollution] and we are willing to do more. It’s just that there are many other sectors that should also be involved,” Mulder says over the phone. Two years ago he took over from his parents at the head of the farm, located in Melissart, south of The Hague. He has 500 cows and two children who he would like to carry on the tradition.

During a tour of the land where he has been working for 40 years, he explains that, although he does not approve of the violence in the demonstrations, he does understand the anger of the farmers. He himself has gone out to protest.

The dispute is related to nitrogen, an essential fertilizer for plant growth. When too much of this substance is released into the environment, it can harm air, water, and soil quality, and ultimately biodiversity.

Environmental activists blame the pollution on the intensive farming model of the Netherlands, which has by far the highest concentration of livestock in the European Union. The Netherlands is the second largest agricultural exporter in the world, after the United States, a country with 237 times more area. Dutch agriculture and horticulture represent 10 per cent of the national economy and 17.5 per cent of exports (€65 billion a year).

Nitrogen pollution in the Netherlands comes mainly from agriculture, in particular from intensive farming for meat and dairy products, as well as from transport. It causes soil acidification and, in waters, a process called eutrophication, which occurs when nutrient runoff reduces the concentration of oxygen in the water and leads to dense plant growth.

The Hague has presented radical proposals with which it hopes to definitively solve the problem. After national and European Union courts imposed tougher measures on nitrogen, the Dutch government now aims to halve emissions of this substance by 2030. The agricultural sector must reduce nitrogen pollution by up to 70% per cent, and farms located in areas protected by the European Union’s Natura 2000 program face the most stringent restrictions.

This means that many farmers will have to radically change their strategy or close completely. The Hague has allocated 25,000 million euros to finance nitrogen reduction techniques or to buy certain farms.

“The reality is that not all farmers will be able to continue their business,” the government said in June, sparking outrage among farmers. For Natasja Oerlemans, from the World Wildlife Fund, the current crisis is “the result of 30 years of inaction, despite all scientific reports and warnings.”

“We as a society have allowed this misguided food system to occur,” says the former politician, “and we are responsible for offering farmers alternatives.”

Dairy farmer Baltus has been lucky: he only has to reduce nitrogen emissions by 12 per cent. It will cost money, he says, but he has no intention of selling the business that has been in the family for some 200 years. “My ancestors did it differently,” says Baltus. “The generation that follows me is also doing it differently, and hopefully better.”

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