Ingrid de Sain is one of thousands of dairy farmers in the Netherlands who says she sometimes wakes up at night. Since a court ruling in 2019 that found the Dutch in violation of European environmental law, his farm of 100 cows in northern Holland is illegal.
Like the other 2,500-plus farmers whose environmental permits were suddenly invalidated, he wants a future where he can make a living and farm legally again.
The Netherlands is the first to face questions that scientists believe will soon come to all intensively farmed areas: how can we balance the needs of nature in the way we farm and grow? Have we reached “peak meat”, like peak oil: so many livestock, so much local pollution, that the only sustainable future lies in decline? They asked the US, the world’s largest meat producer, which should also be answered soon.
In November, the Dutch government announced the first part of a €24.3bn ($26.3bn) plan to buy up to 3,000 farms and large industrial polluters near protected nature reserves – if necessary, by forced purchase, “with pain in our hearts” . It was highly controversial and only preliminary outlines were announced after a year of protests, tense negotiations and a report in October that recommended buying the top 500 or 600 polluters within a year.
The reason is that emissions of ammonia, nitrogen oxides and nitrous oxides harm areas of unique, natural landscape known as Natura 2000 habitats, which the country is bound by EU law to protect. The government says that this means reducing local nitrogen compound emissions from between 12% and 70%, including cutting 118 million animals in the Netherlands by 30% by 2030, according to the projections of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
Tjeerd de Groot, a member of the Netherlands’ house of representatives and agriculture spokesperson for the coalition party D66, advocated halving the number of pigs and chickens, raising fewer cows and letting them graze on pasture. , rather than importing grains and soybeans for food. “Everywhere you look, there’s a problem with agriculture,” he said, referring to the damage pollution has done to biodiversity and water quality. “Yes, we are a big exporter but now we are paying a big environmental price.”
Environmentalists believe that the Netherlands needs to change all elements of its food chain in order to provide a good income for different farming methods. “All the signs are red,” said Natasja Oerlemans, head of the food group at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Netherlands. “The meat and milk production system in the Netherlands is no longer viable at this level. That has been clear for years.”
All eyes are on the Netherlands, according to scientists who believe the world needs action to reduce livestock – rather than relying on voluntary pollution reductions or technological measures that may not be proven at scale.
“The big difference with previous measures is the reduction in the number of livestock,” said Dr Helen Harwatt, a senior research fellow at Chatham House and climate policy fellow at Harvard University. In 2019 he led a group of scientists who called for action to ensure the reduction of livestock. “We tend to see only technological methods of reducing nitrogen at the point of production or reducing leakage to the environment, instead of reducing the amount of agricultural production. All eyes on the Netherlands to learn from this transfer.”
Livestock – farmed for meat and for dairy – has huge impacts on the environment, and Harwatt argues that the reductions should be part of a wider green action. “Currently, the wish of the whole world is to protect more land for biodiversity, reverse the loss of biodiversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, stop deforestation and increase livestock production,” he said. “Today there are more livestock on the planet than wild animals, and more than three times the human population. Livestock production is projected to continue to increase, as diets shift around the world to include more animal products. Something has to give and it’s not the climate or biodiversity.
Countries like Denmark and the US may face similar difficulties, according to Pete Smith, professor of land and global change at Aberdeen University in Scotland. “We showed last year that animal agriculture is responsible for 57% of greenhouse gas emissions from the food system,” he said. “It has a disproportionate impact on the climate. We have too much livestock to support the climate, and the intensity of farming is the issue. I’m not surprised that the Netherlands is in the lead because it has the biggest problem.
The US, on the other hand, is the largest producer of beef, chicken meat and cow’s milk in the world, and is the second largest producer of pork. “If we compare foods in terms of their impact on nutrient pollution per kilogram produced, none is higher than meat,” Harwatt said. “Two-thirds of all plant calories produced in the US are used for feed crops. But livestock production contributes less than 1% of US GDP, and at least double the amount of food for people can do on the land that is now used to grow plants to feed farm animals.”
The US is set to produce 12,820,000 metric tons of beef and cattle this year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture – a slight drop of 6% due to drought conditions, but with an increase in pork and poultry production.
Animal agriculture is linked to 17,900 deaths in the US each year due to air pollution, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency says that agricultural runoff is the leading cause of “impacts on water quality to rivers and streams, the third main source of lakes and the second. biggest source of damage to wetlands”. An example is the Mississippi River.
While the US has signed treaties such as the G7 2030 Nature Compact, which has pledged to halt the loss of biodiversity, and has a new special envoy on biodiversity and water resources, it is not a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity – a potential barriers to adopting a Dutch-style Plan.
Dr Matthew Hayek, assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University, advocates deciding on a point of “peak livestock” and aiming for reduction, rather than relying on climate mitigation strategies such as seaweed additives or manure digesters. “They don’t address part of the problem and their technical efficiency is not demonstrated at scale – especially when you compare it to manufacturing and consuming less,” he said.
“In the United States, especially in the midwestern states, there are still higher levels of nitrogen concentration and ‘bad waters’ than federally allowed. But states can carve out exceptions, and this is what Iowa and many other corn- and beef-heavy states have done. There is no legal mechanism or social pressure to address this – especially when you have a lot of social and regulatory gains in agricultural industries.
“We also have a certain amount of nitrogen pollution that is ‘allowed’. The way we deal with a lot of ‘point source’ pollution from industrial animal farming is to spread it on fields and miraculously This makes it non-source pollution, which cannot be strictly regulated,” he added.
Hayek believes that “soft” policies such as vegan-by-default menus in New York City hospitals can be combined with local regulation, such as the 2010 “total maximum daily load” limit to promote water quality in the Chesapeake Bay – as well as increasing public awareness. “Usually, we don’t even choose to eat meat; we choose because we don’t recognize that there is a choice not to eat meat,” he said. “We also don’t combine the micro scale with the macro scale in our regulatory frameworks. We look at a farm or a farm, but we don’t ask the question: is the nitrogen load in that watershed higher than it can handle that watershed?
In the small, dense population of the Netherlands, it may be easier to solve the “macro” policy of a country of 17.8 million people.
But political action here is full of conflict, competing interests, anger and mistrust.
Farmers complain of hanging in limbo for years; states that sources of pollution such as aviation, road travel and industry are almost unaddressed; and says their sector has made more cuts than others. “People in the countryside have been innovating for 30 years to reduce nitrogen – no other sector has done so much,” said Kees Hanse, a farmer and windfarm owner in the Zierikzee stand. in Zeeland elections for the growing BBB Farmer-Citizen Movement. “We don’t want to get bigger but we will continue to innovate and continue to strive to create safe food resources for people. Nitrogen reduction is not about buying farmers. It needs to come from industry, air traffic, shipping, automobile movements.”
Meanwhile the idea of suggesting the Dutch should eat less meat was so controversial that it was quietly removed from a 2019 climate awareness campaign by a former agriculture minister.
Some believe the nitrogen pricing system, part of the new proposals, will help.
“The farmers are not doing anything wrong: they are just doing what the economy dictates,” said MP de Groot. “Because there is no price for pollution, food is very cheap. The damage is calculated by an institute at €7bn a year, in the Netherlands. You must [monetise] that – and then the economy will change.
Environmentalists like Oerlemans are calling for scrutiny of other parts of the food chain – including banks and feed producers – as well as help for farmers to move to better-paid, lower-intensity farms. agriculture and services such as environmental improvement, floodplain management and carbon sequestration. .
But for dairy farmers like de Sain – one of those the government wants to legalize by stopping “peak polluters” – certainty will not come soon enough. “Farmers always follow the rules,” he said. “If I can afford 50 cows, why should I milk 100?”