#7 The nitrogen-debate: Is the Nitrogen crisis the problem of the dairy industry?

Is the Nitrogen crisis the problem of the dairy industry?

On 29 May 2019, the PAS (Programma Aanpak Stikstof) is rejected by the Council of State, Netherlands’ highest judge. Due to this decision, the Netherlands is dealing with a “nitrogen crisis”. The rejection of PAS has a large impact on many industries and especially on the dairy farms in the agricultural section, which are carrying main responsibility according to the RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment).

My name is Pieter de Weerd (26) and I live in Moerstraten, which is in Brabant (NL). Together with my parents I am running a dairy farm with roughly 200 dairy cows.

For several years, operating in the dairy industry becomes more difficult and our cost prices are increasing. This increase is mainly due to an expansion of laws and legislations. Therefore, it becomes harder and harder to remain competitive on the global market.

An example of these cost increasing factors is the introduction of the phosphate rights systems. This system is introduced after the withdrawal of the dairy produce quota in 2015. This new system is only used in the Netherlands and not in the rest of the European countries. This system had large consequences for the industry, since each farm was cut 8.3% on the rights that were assigned. This means that additional rights need to be bought or leased to be able to keep or expand the current livestock. As a result, the financial position of our industry has deteriorated considerably.

The new nitrogen crisis is therefore for many livestock farmers the last straw that broke the camel’s back because it is becoming increasingly hard to operate or continue the business. For young successors like me it becomes more difficult to take over the company from my parents. Intention and ambition are not enough, it also needs to be financially feasible.

This year every livestock farmer needs to apply for a permit to realize a low-emission stable system. For many farmers meeting this new requirement is a breaking point. The investment of such a system will be between 50.000 and 250.000 euros, depending on the amount of square meters in the stables. In addition to that, a droppings robot need to be purchased, which cleans the new grills 12 times a day. In short, it is a remarkable situation where livestock farmers need to invest in a system that does not have an additive value for us nor is there a proper revenue mode. The current system has worked fine for many years, since the droppings can fall through the slatted floor easily and the grills remain clean. The new system has flaps in the grills causing the gas to be trapped in the well, which can cause explosion hazard.

As an industry we are heavily pressured and for many livestock farmers and their successors ambition to deal with another crisis is a far cry. The question who is responsible for the largest amount of nitrogen emission needs to be reconsidered. The scientific models of the RIVM are doubtful, especially because there is a margin of error of 25 to 30% in these models. The error can even be as much as  70% per company, which is a way to big difference. Next to that, it is never discussed that livestock farmers also capture nitrogen in their crops like grass and corn. Also, the production of nitrogen by the nature reserves is neglected. 

Therefore, it is important that reliable measurements will take place, with full transparency and a more specific emission per sector. Next to that, these measurements need to take place at multiple locations to come to clear results.

Furthermore, it is important that there is no general cut in the livestock, because this already happened after introducing the phosphate rights system. Another cut would lead to the bankruptcy of the dairy industry. These statements already are provided by our interest groups which are united the Landbouw Collectief. It is important that our industry is united and that farmers will join one of the interest groups. I have joined the AJK (agricultural youth contact) which serve the interests of young farmers, and my sister is part of the board of this organization.

If the Dutch government decides on continuing with their policy it will become important that the government will come up with a compensation to cover up a large part of the cost, in order to secure the revenue model of the dairy industry. Otherwise, it will be impossible for many farming enterprises to continue or to take over.

To conclude, it is and will be a hard time for the dairy industry. I hope that with the help of the national and regional government we will come to a solution to be able to continue our agricultural industry with passion.