By MIKE CORDER Associated Press
MAASLAND, Netherlands (AP) — Bales of hay lie burning along Dutch roads. Supermarket shelves are empty because distribution centers are blocked by farmers. Then, at dusk, a policeman pulls his gun on him and shoots at a tractor.
Dutch farmers are engulfed in a summer of discontent that shows no signs of abating. Its objective? The government plans to control nitrogen oxide and ammonia emissions that they say threaten to ruin their farming way of life and put them out of business.
The reduction targets could radically alter the Netherlands’ lucrative agricultural sector, which is known for its intensive farming, and may also herald similar reforms and protests in other European nations whose farmers also spew pollutants.
That turmoil seems a long way off Friday at the Jaap Zegwaard dairy farm, which occupies 200 acres (80 hectares) of pasture near the port city of Rotterdam, whose smokestacks and cranes form a backdrop to its fields.
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Most of Zegwaard’s herd of 180 head of cattle, mostly black and white Holstein-Friesians, grazes in meadows near a traditional Dutch windmill and large white wind turbines. And even if the farm has been in Zegwaard’s family for five generations, some 200 years, he doesn’t know if he would recommend farming life to his 7-year-old daughter and her 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 concerns. Life is too beautiful to deal with what is happening in agriculture. industry right now.”
“Ask the average farmer: It’s deeply sad,” he said.
At the heart of the standoff 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 industry, transport and waste. of the cattle.
The Netherlands, a nation of 17.5 million people inhabiting an area slightly larger than Maryland, has 1.57 million head of registered dairy cattle and just over 1 million calves raised for meat, data show. statistics. The country’s farms produced exports worth €94.5 billion in 2019.
Nitrogen oxides and ammonia raise nutrient levels and soil acidity, leading to reduced biodiversity. Nitrogen in the air produces smog and tiny particles that harm people’s health.
When the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court and legislative advisory body, ruled in 2019 that Dutch policies to control nitrogen emissions were inadequate, it forced the government to consider tougher measures.
Revealing a map detailing nitrogen reduction targets last month, the Dutch government called it an “inevitable transition”. He said that next year will finally bring clarity to Dutch farmers, “if and how they can continue 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 finance the changes. Provincial authorities have a year to draw up plans to achieve the reductions.
Nitrogen expert Wim de Vries, a professor at Wageningen University and Research, doubts that the deadline is realistic.
“It seems to be very fast and there is a legacy, already 40 years old, because the problem was much bigger in the 1980s. So we call it ‘acid rain,'” he said. “Given that legacy, it doesn’t make much difference if we do it in 7 or 10 or 12 years. We have to wait decades for nature to seriously improve anyway.”
Farmers have been protesting for years against the government’s nitrogen policies, but emissions targets triggered new demonstrations, with tractors clogging roads and supermarket distribution centers briefly causing a shortage of fresh produce.
Farmers also clashed with police outside the house of the minister in charge of the government’s nitrogen policy. And this week an officer opened fire on a tractor driven by a 16-year-old. After initially being detained on suspicion of attempted murder, the young driver was released without charge.
The Dutch government has appointed a veteran political negotiator to act as intermediary, but the gesture was immediately rejected by activist farmers and the country’s largest agricultural lobby.
“The government doesn’t offer any space to have a real conversation,” said the agricultural lobby group LTO. “Under these conditions, talking to the mediator makes no sense.”
The LTO, which represents some 30,000 farms, almost half of the Dutch total, described the nitrogen reduction target as “simply unfeasible”. Dutch farms produced exports worth €94.5 billion in 2019.
The group says the government is focused on downsizing and buying farms and not paying enough attention to innovation and sustainable farming practices.
Environmentalists say now is the time to act.
“You rip a cast off a wound in one go,” said Andy Palmen, director of Greenpeace Netherlands. “Painful decisions are now necessary.”
Zegwaard’s farm is in an area where the government is seeking only a 12% reduction in emissions, but is also standing in solidarity with others and supporting the protests.
“The average person currently sees the Netherlands as a nitrogen polluter, while we are also food producers. It seems that people have forgotten,” he told The Associated Press.
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