Thursday, April 18, 2024

How Nitrogen Pollution is forcing Agriculture to change in The Netherlands

Since the 1980’s the need for ecological measures to counteract the effects of nitrogen deposition has been recognized in The Netherlands. Since 1989 the government subsidises both the scientific research needed (restoration ecology) and the implementation of measures in nature reserves. The strict protection of habitats in Natura 2000 sites made this program even more important.

Why does Nitrogen pollution matter?

Nitrogen oxides and ammonia end up in the environment mainly as a result of animal husbandry and the spreading of manure on land in farming, and emissions from traffic and industry. 

In the graph above, NOy are nitrous oxides and NHx ammonia.  Foreign sources are primarily from agriculture. The Netherlands has one of Europe’s largest livestock industries, with more than 100m million cattle, chickens and pigs. It is also the EU’s biggest meat exporter.

Nitrogen (and phosphorous) in reactive forms are important nutrients for plant growth. However, too much is harmful to plants that live on nutrient-poor soils. If these plants disappear, it can also be harmful to animals that live in that area.  Nutrient overloading is also very harmful to aquatic ecosystems (rivers, lakes, estuaries) and causes eutrophication and dead zones.  Nitrogen and Phosphorous Use are one of the Planetary Boundaries that humans have already exceeded.

What are Natura 2000 sites?

Natura 2000 is a European network of protected nature reserves. In Natura 2000 areas, certain animal species and their natural habitat are protected in order to preserve biodiversity. In some parts of the Natura 2000 sites, the amount of nitrogen deposition is too high. 

Dutch Approach to Nitrogen Pollution

This led to the setting up, in 2015, of an Integrated Approach to Nitrogen (or ‘PAS’ in Dutch):

  • to reduce the amount of nitrogen in protected, Natura 2000 areas and
  • to create room for economic development at the same time. 

The PAS created the scope for new economic development based on an appropriate assessment of the adverse impacts of new projects on Natura 2000 areas, which is obligatory within the EU Birds and Habitats Directive.

Monitoring of Nitrogen Oxides and Ammonia

RIVM (The Dutch National Institute for Health and Environment) continuously monitors the concentrations of nitrogen oxides and ammonia in the air and precipitation. Together with site managers, it also monitors the ammonia concentration in more than 80 nature reserves. In addition to the concentration, they also measure the emission and deposition of ammonia, using various measuring systems in a project called AERIUS. Further information can be found at the AERIUS website.  Model calculations are also carried out to explain the measured levels of ammonia and to map the nitrogen deposition on nature.

Court Decisions

In 2019, the European Court of Justice ruled the oversight system for Dutch nitrogen emissions was not good enough. In response, the highest administrative court in the Netherlands ruled that government laws for granting permits for construction projects and agricultural activities, which emit large amounts of nitrogen, were in breach of EU legislation.

The Dutch court ruled that no permits can be issued for projects that will cause a further exceedance of critical loads in Natura 2000 sites. The court also ruled that grazing of cattle and the application of fertilizers may be classified as a project and thus would have to be appropriately assessed. This led to the PAS becoming more strict so that now only when the contribution of new nitrogen-emitting activities is within permissible limits, will new activities be permitted.

What happened as a result of the court’s decision?

This ruling resulted in driving speed limits being reduced to 100kmph (62mph) on motorways to limit nitrogen oxide emissions, it stopped gas-guzzling construction projects and led to the passing of a new law mandating that by 2030 half of protected nature areas must have healthy nitrogen levels.  This created consternation as very valuable economic sectors were now being restricted.  This created the political pressure to shift agriculture policy to restrict nitrogen emissions from animal agriculture which, although it is a significant sector, was now impacting other more profitable economic sectors.

Dutch Programme for Government

In February 2022, the government announced new measures to tackle nitrogen pollution. The government website states: “All sectors, including farming, will have to contribute to these efforts.  For farmers who wish to continue farming, €172 million will be made available to help them innovate, and to make their livestock housing more sustainable.  The government will also set up a transition fund to help farmers who want to make their operations circular.  Funding will also be available to make livestock farms near Natura 2000 areas less intensive.  The government is setting aside a further €350 million for a voluntary buy-out scheme for livestock farmers, as well as extra money for all pig farmers who subscribed to the pig production cessation scheme and meet the requirements.”  Further information can be found here.


While media headlines predicted huge and rapid decreases in animal agriculture, in response Dutch farmers took to the streets in large protests. Unfortunately the Government actions are still not enough for ecological restoration or for climate mitigation.  And they are very far away from protecting animals as sentient beings.  Meanwhile, there is already a contraction of 3% a year in the Dutch agricultural sector, where many older farmers have nobody to hand their farms on to, and it is predicted that in 10 to 15 years 40% to 50% will have stopped anyway.  It seems that these legal actions will limit further expansion of an already damaging and gigantic industry, while also supporting some reductions and transitions to plant based foods. But, in the short term, on their own they will be insufficient to drive the much needed transition to a plant based food system.


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