How tough can environmental crackdowns get? Check the Netherlands 

Restriction of protein level in cattle feed the latest rule for Dutch farmers
How tough can environmental crackdowns get? Check the Netherlands 

Dutch farmers at De Bilt, central Netherlands, listening to speakers at a mid-July national day of protest against government plans to limit protein in cattle feed. Picture: AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Dutch farmers were back on the streets in July, protesting this time because agriculture minister Carola Schouten made official the restriction of how much protein can be used in cattle feed, from September 1.

For a look at how tough environmental crackdowns could get, Irish farmers need only look at the Netherlands.

Dutch farmers will risk fines of up to €2,500 if they exceed the proscribed levels of protein. Their agricultural industry agrees protein levels should be reduced, but disputes the amount, and how the measure is enforced.

However, the government is very exact in its figures, saying the protein restriction will reduce ammonia output from farms by 200 tonnes, which Minister Schouten says will allow 75,000 new homes to be built.

The background is the judgment by the country’s Council of State last May requiring the government to limit nitrogen emissions through stricter regulations for the farming, transport and construction sectors.

Minister Schouten said it’s farmers’ turn to give way, so that government obligations to build houses and roads can be progressed.

There seems to be no end to the environmental crackdowns on agriculture in the EU’s biggest food exporting member state.

Government funding of €455m has been approved to buy out and close down 407 pig farms, in another recent measure to combat nitrogen-based pollution.

A toy tractor ion a flagpole with the Netherlands  flag during a farmer demonstration  on July 22.
A toy tractor ion a flagpole with the Netherlands  flag during a farmer demonstration  on July 22.

“Farming must make the biggest effort, because it is responsible for 40% of nitrogen emissions in the form of ammonia,” said former Deputy Prime Minister Johan Remkes, leader of the advisory council.

The Netherlands (rated the world’s second-largest food exporter, after the US) has been in the front line of the battle between agriculture and environmental protection since Dutch dairy farmers were forced by the EU to get rid of 190,000 dairy cows (11% of the national herd) in 2017 and 2018, because of their runaway phosphorus fertiliser pollution from livestock manure.

Unlike many EU countries, the Netherlands has a strict legal cap on its nitrogen emissions.

In May 2019, it breached this limit, forcing the government to stop construction projects and farm expansion, and cut the daytime speed limit on all roads to 100 kph, in order to curb emissions of ammonia and nitrous oxide.

As a result, Dutch farmers were obliged to adopt new measures to reduce nitrogen emissions by 5% per year.

Funding to buy out pig farmers has been increased from €180m to €455m, after 407 farmers, much more than expected, applied.

This could result in 910,645 pig rights being withdrawn from the market, which would reduce the Dutch pig herd 8%.

However, only a slight reduction in pork production is expected; instead, less pigs will be exported to Germany and will instead be fattened and slaughtered domestically.

There’s also €1.8 billion to buy out farmers situated close to nitrogen-sensitive nature areas, and to encourage farmers to go “green”.

The advisory council said nature will not recover without concerted action to reduce nitrogen emissions. Buying out farmers who want to sell will not be enough, particularly on livestock farms close to environmentally-sensitive areas, said council leader Remkes.

The agri-food industry reacted negatively to his proposals. The Mesdag Fund sponsored by Dutch dairy organisations said reducing nitrogen emissions 50% is “utterly unattainable.”

“The nitrogen that blows in from the North Sea and abroad already causes excessive exceedances in one-third of all Natura 2000 areas. Then, the rest of the Netherlands is not allowed to emit anything at all. This is wishful thinking,” according to Mesdag Fund. (Natura 2000 is a scheme to protect natural areas covering more than 18% of the EU).

The Dutch Organisation for Agriculture and Horticulture (LTO) said, “The Netherlands, as a small, densely populated and industrious country with many unattainable nature goals, has walked into a dead-end tunnel.”

Further nitrogen measures are likely to continue the civil disobedience demonstrations by Dutch livestock farmers of the past year, initially triggered by the new nitrogen rules, but also by a perceived lack of respect for farmers.

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