After all the tractor protests and hay bales on highways, the cabinet has opted for a soft approach. For the time being, no permits from farmers will be revoked to reduce nitrogen. For the time being, there will be no one-year deadline for the biggest polluters, the ‘peak tax collectors’, as mediator Johan Remkes advised last week. The cabinet mainly hopes to tempt farmers into voluntary buy-out. Farmers can also work cleaner in other ways, the government emphasizes, as does Remkes. With technical innovation (innovation), less livestock per hectare (extension) or by moving further away from nature reserves. Hopefully, forced closure of farms will only be necessary for ‘a few’ farmers, Remkes continues. But how realistic are these other ways to reduce peak tax emissions? Sometimes an all-in-one solution is possible, such as with the Oostelijke Vechtplassen in North Holland. Here the province still had to create 700 hectares of nature reserve, says policy advisor land Jaro Hoogte of the province. A 65-year-old dairy farmer wanted to stop and was bought out for around 2.5 million euros. Another colleague in the region was willing to take over that position. He started organic farming with a ‘smart’ manure shed and nature management along the ditch side. A piece of Utrecht nature reserve was connected and included. Result: more nature, less nitrogen – but they have been working on it for 3.5 years now. “This doesn’t work everywhere, it’s quite a puzzle,” says Hoogte. “It starts with farmers who step forward and want to cooperate.” Fewer animals per hectare The peak loaders are the product of the increase in scale in agriculture after the Second World War. Between 1950 and 2020, the number of farms fell from 410,000 to 52,000. But the number of hectares and animals per farmer has increased significantly over time. The Netherlands now has 11.4 million pigs, 3.8 million chickens, 13.3 million sheep and goats and 100 million chickens, according to Statistics Netherlands. “Extensive livestock farming, as Remkes describes in his report, we hardly have in the Netherlands,” according to Martha Bakker, professor of land use planning at Wageningen University & Research. “With extensive livestock farming, which does not harm the ecosystem, you should think of one cow per hectare. In the Netherlands, farmers have about two cows per hectare – double that. And for intensive livestock farmers, with stables full of goats, pigs and chickens, extensification is an almost unthinkable step.” It is possible to expand, says Bakker, but she sees it more as a solution for the longer term – not for the five to six hundred peak loaders that Remkes talks about in his report . About 60 percent of farmers over the age of fifty – about twenty thousand companies – have no successor, Remkes describes. The government can buy that land through natural attrition and resell it under the condition of extensification, says Bakker. “Then you can really come a long way in ten years.” Relocating farmers Remkes also proposes to relocate or redistribute farmers over four different zones: from red (intensive livestock farming) to green (organic farming). He derived this idea from an article by Professor Bakker, but according to her, many people mistakenly see this as ‘a migration of people’. “If the government can persuade enough dairy farmers to extensify in the long term, the move will not be too bad.” Relocating is an option for intensive livestock farming with pigs, goats and chickens, she says – but not in the short term. Bakker: “You can cluster such barns in ‘agroparks’, as you already have in China. It makes no difference to a pig whether it is standing twelve high on the Maasvlakte in a full barn in the Brabant countryside or in a full barn. Such an animal is inside all his life. An agropark like this can operate in a very sustainable way and mean an improvement in animal welfare.” Major polluters can also reduce their emissions through innovative techniques, according to Remkes. A simple but expensive solution is to move the barn in the yard, says Gerard Migchels, researcher at Wageningen University & Research, who specializes in agricultural innovation. “It differs enormously in the nitrogen precipitation whether a barn is 200 or 1,000 meters away from a vulnerable nature reserve.” Technical solutions in the barn itself can also lead to lower emissions in the future, says Migchels. Agrotech company Lely is working on a device that separates faeces and pee from cows and thus significantly reduces nitrogen emissions in the stables, says Mighels. Lely claims that it can achieve a reduction of 70 percent , but scientists doubt this. Various studies have already concluded in recent years that technical solutions often do not live up to their promises. Researchers from Wageningen concluded about four years ago that air scrubbers often used by farmers, which purify the barn air before it is blown out, were less efficient than expected. And the CBS stated in 2019 that the emissions from ‘sustainable’ stable floors, which also separate the faeces and pee of cattle, will probably remain considerably higher than expected. ‘Very ambitious’ Technical solutions in stables only work if the farmers use the equipment correctly, Migchels objects. To save energy costs, some farmers decide to turn off the air scrubber at night, for example. And sustainable barn floors only work, he says, if the barn floor is properly maintained and kept clean. It is expected that in five years’ time there will be sensors that can properly monitor emissions on the farm. “Farms that do not have their affairs in order then fall through the basket.” The equipment is already being used by factories on the Maasvlakte, but is still too expensive for agriculture, says Migchels. The cabinet calls Remkes’ one-year deadline to terminate farms that do not want to take measures and do not want to relocate “very ambitious”. Is the voluntary buy-out of as many peak loaders as possible, which the cabinet is now focusing on, realistic? “That seems difficult to me,” confirms Martijn Vink of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL): “Some of the peak loaders are large, efficient, profitable companies with future prospects. They are often not interested in voluntary buy-out at all.” Vink published an extensive study last week in which he analyzed the buyout arrangements of the past 25 years. The most important conclusion: central government has too high expectations of these schemes. The cabinet has reserved 7.4 billion euros to close livestock farms, the largest cost item of the 24 billion reserved for the nitrogen approach. But there was much less enthusiasm than hoped for the buy-out schemes that the government has started in recent years; the much smaller budgets of the past were never used up. Remkes believes that the peak loaders should be compensated as ‘generously as possible’. The ministers of the Ministry of Agriculture must arrange permission for this in Brussels, according to him. That too is easier said than done, says Vink. “State aid rules seem to allow a financial incentive, but they also require the certainty that the livestock farmer in the Netherlands or abroad will not start over with that compensation. That does not make a generous compensation immediately attractive.” And finally: coercion The very last option, the government says, is coercion. There are two flavors for this: expropriation or revocation of permits. Expropriation is regularly carried out for infrastructure projects. And in recent years, provinces have also expropriated sparsely for nature restoration. However, expropriation creates a lot of resistance from the agricultural sector and can lead to lengthy legal proceedings that can take years. For example, the expropriation of farmers in the Hedwigepolder lasted more than ten years, says Vink, and it involved a relatively small group of farmers and not hundreds. The government has no experience at all with revoking permits, says Vink. An analysis by the RIVM commissioned by the cabinet and published on Friday shows that this can take about one and a half to five years. The nitrogen space that is released in this way can only be used for nature restoration, not to provide other farmers with nitrogen space. According to Vink, it is highly questionable how the judge will respond to a request to revoke a permit. “The result is uncertain.” The cabinet issued a response to the Remkes report on nitrogen emissions on Friday. Ministers Piet Adema (Agriculture, CU) and Christianne van der Wal (Nature and Nitrogen, VVD) accept the recommendations and meet farmers. A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 15, 2022