The most effective way to reduce nitrogen emissions in the dairy sector is to buy out farmers, confiscate their permits and impose restrictions on the use of the land for other agricultural purposes. That is also by far the most expensive solution. This is apparent from research by the agricultural consultancy CLM, which will be published this Thursday, on behalf of ABN Amro. CLM investigated the effectiveness and costs of fourteen nitrogen-reducing measures in the dairy sector: from buying out farmers, switching to organic, more sustainable agriculture to taking technical measures in the barns. The ABN advice is intended to help dairy farmers and administrators with ‘sometimes difficult choices’. In May 2019, the Council of State ruled in the now infamous ruling that the Netherlands is doing too little to reduce nitrogen emissions. Nature is deteriorating: the soil is acidifying, plant and tree species are disappearing, the number of insects, birds and animals is decreasing. Also read this article: How is nature doing? Questions and answers about the Dutch nitrogen problem Agriculture is responsible for 60 percent of total nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands, according to research agency TNO. The government wants nitrogen emissions to be halved by 2030. Provinces must carry out this assignment. Opinions differ on how emissions should be reduced. ABN Amro listed fourteen measures and looked at the effectiveness and the price tag. The main conclusion is not surprising: a combination of different measures can pull the Netherlands out of the ‘nitrogen swamp’. ABN assumed an average dairy farm with 120 dairy cows, which emits 3,168 kilograms of nitrogen annually. Technical solutions What is striking: buying up is by far the most effective measure and results in 48 to 59 percent less emissions. But it is also very expensive, according to ABN: about 50 to 84 euros per kilo of nitrogen reduction. Add to this the withdrawal of the permit, the demolition of the stables and the possible downgrading of the farmland – which imposes restrictions on the use of the agricultural land, so production goes down and lost costs have to be covered by the government – and you arrive. quickly exceed 1.5 million euros when buying out. Moreover, research by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency revealed two weeks ago , the government has been expecting unrealistically high expectations for decades from buying out farmers. Regulations are always disappointing, both in terms of effect and enthusiasm. Dairy farmers have “several billions of euros in loans” open to ABN. And move a dairy farm? This yields approximately the same nitrogen gain, but is also expensive, according to ABN. By switching to a more organic farm, emissions also decrease, because there are fewer cows per hectare. This will reduce emissions by 20 percent, according to ABN, but the question is whether this is enough. In addition, fewer cows means less milk and therefore less income. In this case, ABN assumes that ‘the market offers room for additional organic dairy’ and that the costs of more organic business operations ‘are compensated by a higher milk price’. Innovative measures, such as technical solutions in farmers’ stables (such as air scrubbers or manure floors that quickly separate manure and urine, resulting in fewer emissions) can make ‘an important contribution’ to the reduction of nitrogen emissions, ABN writes. A nitrogen emission reduction of 15 to more than 20 percent, for a fraction of the money. But the use of technical measures is also criticized. For example, the devices do not always deliver what they promise and farmers turn off some devices at night because they use a lot of power. This week, researchers from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) published a report in which they concluded that promised reduction percentages for some technical solutions turned out to be lower than hoped. “Low-emission techniques in livestock farming don’t always do what they’re supposed to,” the researchers write. Similar studies have appeared more often in recent years, including those written by the same WUR or Statistics Netherlands. Not in favor of forcing Pierre Berntsen, ABN Amro’s director of agricultural companies, is also aware of the investigations. He calls the low confidence in these techniques unjustified. The core of the matter, he says, is that the technology is applied and ‘monitored’ in the right way. For example, smooth barn floors, he says, were “roughened” so that cows did not slip, but this also made the gutters into which the urine has to drain to the manure pit not work as well. “If you don’t use the technology as intended, it won’t work well.” Moreover, it is important that the producers continue to improve the techniques, says Berntsen. ABN Amro is not in favor of forcing farmers to stop their businesses. “Forced expropriation of companies takes a lot of time and frustrates cooperation between farmers, provinces and the government,” ABN writes. Moreover, says Berntsen, it “causes a lot of unrest and uncertainty in the personal atmosphere of farmers.” A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 21, 2022