Anger mounts for Dutch farmers who oppose pollution cuts

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MASSLAND, Netherlands — Hay bales burn along Dutch highways. Supermarket shelves are empty as distribution centers are blocked by farmers. Then, at dusk, a policeman draws his pistol and fires at a tractor.

Dutch farmers are caught up in a summer of discontent that shows no signs of abating. Their target? The government plans to limit emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia which they say threaten to destroy their farming lifestyle and bankrupt them.

The reduction targets could radically change the lucrative agricultural sector in the Netherlands, known for its intensive farming, and could also prefigure similar reforms – and protests – in other European countries whose farmers also pump pollutants.

That turmoil seemed far away on Friday at the Jaap Zegwaard dairy farm, which occupies 80 hectares (200 acres) of grassland near the port city of Rotterdam, whose chimneys and cranes form a backdrop to its fields.

Most of Zegwaard’s 180 cattle, mostly black and white Holstein-Frisians, graze on grassland near a traditional Dutch windmill and large white windmills. And even though the farm has been in the Zegwaard family for five generations, or some 200 years, he isn’t sure if he would recommend life as a farmer to his 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old twins.

“If you ask me now, I would say, please don’t even think about it,” the 41-year-old said. “There are so many worries. Life is way too good to deal with what is happening in the agriculture sector right now.”

“Ask the average farmer: it’s deeply sad,” he said.

At the heart of the clash between farmers and the Dutch government are measures to protect human health and vulnerable natural habitats from pollution in the form of nitrogen oxides and ammonia, which are produced by the industry, transport and livestock waste.

The Netherlands, a nation of 17.5 million people in an area slightly larger than Maryland, has 1.57 million registered dairy cattle and just over a million calves raised for meat, according to the statistics. The country’s farms produced exports worth 94.5 billion euros in 2019.

Nitrogen oxides and ammonia increase nutrient levels and soil acidity, leading to reduced biodiversity. Airborne nitrogen produces smog and tiny particles that are harmful to health.

When the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court and legislative advisory body, ruled in 2019 that Dutch policies to limit nitrogen emissions were inadequate, it forced the government to consider tougher measures.

Unveiling a map detailing nitrogen reduction targets last month, the Dutch government called it an “inevitable transition”. He said the coming year will finally bring clarity to Dutch farmers, “if and how they can continue with their business. The minister sees three options for farmers: become (more) sustainable, relocate or stop.

The Dutch government aims to reduce nitrogen emissions by 50% by 2030 and has earmarked an additional 24.3 billion euros ($25.6 billion) to fund the changes. Provincial authorities have one year to develop plans to achieve the reductions.

Nitrogen expert Wim de Vries, a professor at Wageningen University and Research, doubts that this time frame is realistic.

“It seems to be very fast and there is a legacy, already for 40 years, because the problem was much bigger in the 1980s. We called it ‘acid rain’ then, he said. “Account given that legacy, it doesn’t make much difference if we do it in 7, 10, or 12. We have to wait decades anyway for nature to seriously improve.

Farmers have been protesting the government’s nitrogen policies for years, but emissions targets have sparked further protests, with tractors clogging highways and supermarket distribution centres, briefly leading to shortages of fresh products.

Farmers also clashed with police outside the home of the minister responsible for government nitrogen policy. And this week, an officer opened fire on a tractor driven by a 16-year-old. After initially being held on suspicion of attempted manslaughter, the young driver was released without charge.

The Dutch government appointed a seasoned political negotiator to act as a go-between, but the move was immediately rejected by activist farmers and the country’s biggest agricultural lobby group.

“There is no space for the government to have a real conversation,” said farm lobby group LTO. “Under these conditions, speaking with the mediator is useless.”

The LTO, which represents around 30,000 farms – almost half of the Dutch total – described the nitrogen reduction target as “simply unachievable”. Dutch farms produced exports worth €94.5 billion in 2019.

The group says the government is focused on reducing livestock and buying farms and is not paying enough attention to innovation and sustainable farming practices.

Environmentalists say now is the time to act.

“You rip a bandage off a wound in one go,” said Andy Palmen, director of Greenpeace Netherlands. “Painful choices are now necessary.”

Zegwaard’s farm is in an area where the government is only looking to cut emissions by 12%, but they are also demonstrating in solidarity with others and supporting protests.

“The average person currently sees the Netherlands as a nitrogen polluter, while we are also a food producer. Looks like people forgot about that,” he told The Associated Press.

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