- The Netherlands is one of the smallest countries in Europe, but also one of its biggest food producers and exporters, thanks to a wildly successful intensive agriculture sector.
- With the highest density of livestock in Europe, the Netherlands has been in the throes of a years-long crisis over nitrogen emissions from manure, which ecologists say are destroying the country’s ecosystems.
- When the Dutch government announced plans to buy out farms close to nature reserves and cut the country’s livestock herd by as much as one-third, farmers revolted, staging massive demonstrations and destabilizing politics in the Netherlands.
- The “nitrogen crisis” has become a flash point in Dutch society, raising difficult questions over how to reform unsustainable food systems and offering a preview of what’s to come for other countries as well.
OTTERLO, Netherlands — On a bright afternoon in May, Annemieke Visser-Winterink trudged through the Dutch underbrush, dead leaves crackling under her boots as she approached a nearby tree and touched it softly.
“They’re all sick,” she said, sunbeams falling from the forest canopy onto her ranger uniform. “There’s not one that I would say, you know, that’s a very fit or a very healthy tree.”
The oaks surrounding her stretched upwards, their branches winding into the crisp spring air. The trees are a crowd-pleaser at De Hoge Veluwe National Park, a sprawling, 55-square-kilometer (21-square-mile) refuge of wildflower-laden meadows, barren sand dunes, and romantic forest groves.
De Hoge Veluwe is the biggest national park in the Netherlands. A stone’s throw from the city of Arnhem, it draws tourists from across the country, who come to catch sight of its 172 species of birds or, if they have a permit, to hunt red deer and boar. The oaks are one of the park’s stars. Some, like these, are relatively young. Others are hundreds of years old, the Veluwe’s stout royalty, under whose branches generations of Dutch wanderers and nature lovers have taken respite.
And now, they’re dying.
“Normally, if you have a healthy tree, you’ll see all these little twigs where the leaves will grow,” said Visser-Winterink, frowning at one of the oaks. “If you look at this one you can see that it still has the twigs at the bottom part, but if you look at the top it’s dead, basically. No branches or anything.”
The Veluwe’s oaks — along with many of its birds, insects, and other native species — are cracking under the weight of the Netherlands’ industrial food system. Surrounding the park, dairy farms with iconic Dutch black-and-white Holstein-Friesian cows dot the landscape, where they produce milk, cheese and butter for supermarkets across Europe.
These farms, along with others like them, represent one of the 20th century’s great achievements in modern agriculture. After World War 2, Dutch farming underwent a radical transformation, moving from scattered smallholder plots to a staggeringly productive export machine. Today, there are more than 15 million pigs and cows in the Netherlands, almost matching the small country’s human population. It has the highest density of livestock in Europe, and, despite its size, is the EU’s biggest exporter of meat and fourth in the world overall in global milk exports.
The Netherlands’ reputation as a food-producing powerhouse is so strong that in 2017, National Geographic ran an article calling it “the country that feeds the world.” By value, it’s second only to the United States in agricultural exports. The success of the Dutch agricultural industry has made some of its biggest farmers rich, along with shareholders of the corporations, supermarket chains and banks that surround them.
But it’s been a catastrophe for nature.
Livestock emissions from farms, like the ones near the Veluwe, are the single biggest contributor to what’s become known to the Dutch as the stikstofcrisis — the nitrogen crisis. What may sound like an obscure environmental concern has, in fact, torn the Netherlands apart, at one point grinding construction to a halt, provoking explosive street protests by farmers, and rewriting the country’s politics.
For four years, the stikstofcrisis has pitted environmentalists, armed with EU regulations, against farmers’ groups and the agrifood industry. It’s fueled long-simmering resentments in the Dutch countryside, spurred gridlock in parliament, and sparked the meteoric rise of a new populist political party that swept elections earlier this year.
But in that time, little progress has been made in curtailing nitrogen emissions from farms. And the fate of fragile habitats like the Veluwe now looks shakier than ever.
Over decades, intensive food systems have become an engine of ecological destruction tearing through biodiversity from Europe to South America. Meat and dairy production, the heart of the stikstofcrisis, alone is responsible for about 15% of humanity’s carbon emissions. As cultural and political clashes over how to feed ourselves without destroying the planet escalate, nature is sending out a distress call. Inevitably, the way we eat is going to have to change, especially in the world’s wealthy countries.
But the Netherlands has a warning for the world: such change isn’t going to come smoothly.
Until it does, the Veluwe, along with the rest of the planet’s quiet, wild places, will have to keep on picking up the tab for what’s on our dinner plates.
“The oak forests are really on the verge of collapse due to ammonia deposition,” said Bram van Liere, a campaigner with the Dutch environmental group Milieudefensie. “It’s not from today or last year, it’s been building up in the environment for decades. It acidifies the soil so other nutrients flush out until there’s basically nothing left. And it’s not a matter of a couple of birds that might die out. It’s an entire biodiversity collapse.”
A bird-killing cloud
Ecologist Arnold van den Burg stumbled into his role in the stikstofcrisis by accident. Wiry, with a deep laugh and a love of the outdoors, van den Burg lives on the outskirts of the Veluwe, where he studies birds. In the early 2000s, he noticed that the eggs of the Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) were failing before the chicks could hatch. The tests he ran indicated the cause was amino acid deficiencies in the mother birds.
“It was strange to me,” said van den Burg, from the Biosphere Science Foundation. “Because birds of prey eat protein. So why would they have protein shortages?”
Along with the egg failures, van den Burg observed worrying signs in other species too. Songbird chicks were breaking their legs while still in the nest, their tiny bones too brittle to support their weight. The songbirds, he found, suffered from a lack of calcium. He began to suspect a familiar culprit: nitrogen overload in their habitat.
The nitrogen problem in the Netherlands isn’t new, nor is its cause a mystery. Cows and pigs, the bedrock of the Dutch meat and dairy industry, consume a lot of animal feed — mostly soy concentrates imported from places like the U.S. and Brazil. Farmers who grow that soy use synthetic fertilizers to provide it with nitrogen and phosphorus, the nutrients that the world’s agricultural system is built on.
When livestock eat the soy, a portion of those nutrients are absorbed into their bodies, and thus their meat. Even more, though, is excreted via their manure and urine. When the two mix, either on the floor of barns and stables or in outdoor pastures, they produce ammonia, a gaseous form of nitrogen, which then evaporates into the atmosphere. By the 1980s, the steady growth of the Netherlands’ livestock herd had generated a cloud of ammonia across the country. Combined with factories’ sulfur dioxide emissions, it created acid rain — one of the first signs there was a downside to the triumph of intensive, livestock-oriented agriculture.
“You can smell ammonia, this was a problem for people,” said Roland Bobbink, a Dutch expert in the science of nitrogen deposition at Radboud University. “So, at the end of the ’80s they started a mitigation program to control the emissions of ammonia.”
The government’s measures included better filters on industrial smokestacks, which sharply cut sulfur dioxide emissions, along with technology that helped livestock farmers separate manure from urine. Spurred also by EU-imposed milk quotas, the number of dairy cows in the Netherlands dropped by 600,000 over the next 25 years, reducing nitrogen deposition into the environment by nearly half. This drop was enough to stop the acid rain, but not enough to prevent nitrogen overload in nearby ecosystems.
“Over the last 15 years the reduction of emissions stagnated,” said Jeroen Candel, a political scientist at Wageningen University & Research. “It had to do with a larger steering philosophy that the government shouldn’t introduce coercive measures, as we’ve seen in some other [EU] member states, but instead rely on the market to come up with solutions.”
Livestock-produced ammonia drifts in the air, eventually coming to rest on surfaces within a 20-30-km (12-19-mi) radius. Over time, it builds up, especially in soils. Some plants love the excess nitrogen, gorging on it and crowding out other species. Others don’t fare so well. Eventually, the soil itself acidifies, draining away vital nutrients and throwing food chains out of balance.
“Then you get an increase of aluminum, which is toxic for sensitive plants and animals, and you get a leeching of calcium, potassium and magnesium in the soil,” Bobbink said.
As van den Burg suspected, this is what was causing the birds to suffer. Over centuries, species in ecosystems like the Veluwe developed complex methods to obtain their needed nutrients. Some of the park’s birds, for instance, get their calcium by eating snail shells. But acidification was wrecking the snails’ ability to grow their shells.
“You have a cascade of problems that arise from these changes … and you see the effects in the plants, you see them in the insects — which die if you put them on the oak trees — you see it affecting songbirds, and you see it affecting the sparrowhawks,” van den Burg said.
When he published his research, it caught the attention of environmental groups in the Netherlands, who had been sounding the alarm over excess nitrogen for decades. The problem was far from confined to the Veluwe alone. According to one study, authored by Bobbink and published by Greenpeace, 118 out of 161 protected areas were straining under the weight of nitrogen deposition; 14 were said to be at the final stages before collapse.
Tired of begging the government to take action, these groups started taking a more confrontational approach, looking to the courts in the Netherlands and the EU to deliver what the country’s pro-market politicians would not. Environmentalists argued before the European Court of Justice and the Dutch Council of State, the country’s highest court, that the government wasn’t following EU rules that required member states to protect biodiversity. Van den Burg was one of their witnesses.
“In the 1980s, when they handled the sulfuric acid deposition really well, they should have done exactly the same with nitrogen deposition. But because of the lobby of the farmers, they didn’t,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
In May 2019, the Council of State issued its ruling. The stikstofcrisis had begun.
Days of tractor and flame
The ruling landed on the Netherlands like a ton of manure. The court agreed with the environmental groups that brought the case, ordering the government to stop issuing permits for nitrogen-emitting projects until it came up with a plan to cut emissions fast. Overnight, 18,000 construction projects, including critical infrastructure and housing development, were mothballed until a new strategy could be cobbled together.
With the economy at risk, a Dutch lawmaker with ties to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s cabinet suggested that the only way to deal with the problem was to do the unthinkable: cut the nation’s livestock herd dramatically. Outraged farmers, urged on by feed companies and others in the agrifood industry, revolted.
But just a few months into the crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, temporarily halting the protests as farmers waited for the government to release its plan. In the meantime, tensions over lockdowns and vaccinations simmered, fueling mistrust and adding to an atmosphere of suspicion toward the government.
When Rutte’s cabinet released its long-anticipated nitrogen plan in June 2022, it was a match thrown onto dry kindling. The plan called for a 50% reduction in nitrogen deposition by 2030. In areas close to Natura 2000 sites — those areas protected by EU regulations as well as national ones, such as the Veluwe — it would be as high as 70%. To achieve cuts that dramatic, some farms would have to be bought out and closed down.
The announcement lit the countryside on fire — in some cases literally. Upside-down Dutch flags, the de facto symbol of the protest movement, were flown as a war banner from homes, overpasses and farms. Tens of thousands of farmers in a convoy of tractors crisscrossed highways in rural areas, stopping to set piles of manure and hay ablaze. At one point, police fired on a tractor they said was trying to ram into them.
Glued to their screens, most people in the Netherlands couldn’t help but sympathize with the protesters, including many environmentalists, who felt that farmers were being asked to shoulder the burden of a crisis the government should have dealt with years ago.
“It’s not their principal fault,” van den Burg said. “This is a lack of proper governance that’s happening now. The farmers were stimulated for decades to produce more and more, no matter what the environmental costs.”
The explosive reaction raised difficult questions for the environmental movement. To protect nature, nitrogen emissions had to drop immediately. But the measures that many believed necessary would likely put some farmers out of business. With conservation running headlong into the livelihoods of those farmers, would Dutch policymakers even be able to survive those measures?
Here, in the shade of the Veluwe’s oak trees, the events of summer 2022 seem distant, a far cry from the quiet, slow-moving decay taking place beneath soil and bark. This has been a challenge for environmentalists: amid the picturesque blossoming of new life, it takes an experienced and deliberate eye like Visser-Winterink’s to see what’s at risk of being lost. Compared to the kinetic response to policies intended to reverse it, the plodding march of biodiversity decline in the Netherlands is easy to overlook.
As Dutch society wakes up to the difficult reality that its environment can no longer survive its food system, how it responds may be a preview of what’s to come beyond its borders.
“The polarization within the groups, that’s something that surprises everybody,” Visser-Winterink said with a sigh. “It’s getting really harsh, and people are just not able to find each other anymore. The farmers are only thinking about their part and the nature conservationists are thinking about their part. They’re not finding common ground.”
In part 2 of Mongabay’s miniseries on the Dutch nitrogen crisis: the backlash shows up at the ballot box.
Banner image: A dairy cow in Waginengen University’s Dairy Campus, Leeuwarden, Netherlands. Image by Ashoka Mukpo / Mongabay.