Dutch politicians are considering plans to force hundreds of farmers to sell up and cut livestock numbers, to reduce damaging ammonia pollution.
After the highest Dutch administrative court found in 2019 that the government was breaking EU law by not doing enough to reduce excess nitrogen in vulnerable natural areas, the country has been battling what it is calling a “nitrogen crisis”.
Daytime speed limits have been reduced to 100kmph (62mph) on motorways to limit nitrogen oxide emissions, gas-guzzling construction projects were halted and a new law pledges that by 2030 half of protected nature areas must have healthy nitrogen levels.
Now civil servants at the finance and agriculture ministry have drawn up proposals which include slashing livestock numbers [pdf] by 30%, one of the most radical plans of its kind in Europe. Two proposed scenarios include forcing some farmers to sell emissions rights and even their land to the state, if necessary.
Livestock produce manure which, when mixed with urine, releases ammonia, a nitrogen compound. If it gets into lakes and streams via farm runoff, excessive nitrogen can damage sensitive natural habitats by, for example, encouraging algae blooms that deplete oxygen in surface waters.
“We are a relatively small country with a lot of inhabitants, industry, transport and agriculture, so we are reaching the limits of what nature can take,” said Rudi Buis, a spokesperson for the agriculture ministry. “There is a high level of urgency for us to tackle the nitrogen compounds problem. This means that in the near future, choices must be made.”
But the idea of expropriation, or forced sale, due to the climate crisis, is politically controversial in a country where, six months after the general election, multiple parties are trying to form a minority government.
During parliamentary questions on Tuesday, the outgoing agriculture minister, Carola Schouten, confirmed that forced sales of emissions rights or land were a last resort among the measures being considered.
“No, I don’t want to get rid of the farmers,” she said. “I do think that in certain locations, companies cannot carry on and so we must ensure that we have the rules that are necessary.”
Environmentalists have welcomed the plans, saying this could be the shape of things to come across Europe. “It’s a step in the right direction,” said Bram van Liere, campaigner at Friends of the Earth Netherlands. “We would do more on buying out farmers and helping them transition to sustainable agriculture.
“The nitrogen crisis is very severe in the Netherlands, but there’s also very high nitrogen deposition in Germany and Belgium, for instance. I think their huge factory farms will also have to be bought out to comply with the [EU] Habitats Directive and to protect nature.”
But farming groups have already spent months blocking roads with tractors in protest over other proposals to limit ammonia from animal waste, and many are strongly opposed.
“Expropriation is a bad idea,” said Wytse Sonnema, head of public affairs at the Netherlands Agricultural and Horticultural Organization (LTO), which has proposed a plan to fund farming innovation and voluntary farm relocation or closure.
“First: on principle. It’s a land grab from the government which does not fit with good governance. The other reason is very practical: expropriation takes five to seven years before you have results, and in many cases longer. We don’t have this time, and it is of course far more expensive.”
Some parties say a voluntary approach is essential. Derk Boswijk, agriculture spokesman for the Christian Democratic Appeal, which is part of the potential coalition, said: “Nitrogen compound emission must come down considerably … but there are several ways to reduce it: extensification, which would mean more land for the livestock, relocating or voluntarily buying out farmers near nature reserves, and investing in innovation.
“In the Netherlands, there is already a contraction of 3% a year in the agricultural sector, many farmers have nobody to hand on to, and it is predicted that in 10 to 15 years, 40% to 50% will have stopped anyway. Plans for forced expropriation … are disastrous for support and trust in government.”
Despite dissent in parliament, legal experts point out that the law already exists for such a climate-related policy to be introduced. Jacques Sluysmans, professor of expropriation law at Radboud University Nijmegen, said most European countries have such laws. “In the Netherlands … with expropriation, the compensation regime is very generous,” he added.
“I’m not sure how much countries look at each other, but for these problems you need to draw a line across Europe, otherwise they just move to another country and do the same there. The environment doesn’t stop at the borders.”
Marjan Minnesma, director of the Urgenda organisation, an NGO which won a court case to force the Dutch government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said environmentalist action was likely to drive further government action in future.
“I am afraid that this action is not because the government realises that it does not do enough – I wish they would realise that – but it was because they are forced by the courts,” she said. “I think legal cases will be the driving force of more action in the coming years.”
Sign up for the Animals farmed monthly update to get a roundup of the best farming and food stories across the world and keep up with our investigations. You can send us your stories and thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org