Should farmers close their businesses soon? 5 questions about nitrogen and closet plans

Nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands must be drastically reduced, according to the cabinet. In some areas, emissions have to be reduced by up to 70%, a huge task that particularly affects the agricultural sector. But what exactly is nitrogen, and what do the new plans mean?

What is nitrogen?

Nitrogen is a colorless and odorless gas that is all around us. About 78% of the air we breathe is made up of nitrogen, and nitrogen itself is not harmful to humans or animals. Plants also use it as a nutrient, and if there is a lot of nitrogen in the soil, plants that love nitrogen will grow extra fast.

What do the new nitrogen plans entail?

National nitrogen emissions need to be significantly reduced, but because areas differ, the approach also differs from area to area. In short, this is what Ministers Staghouwers (Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality) and Van der Wal (Nature and Nitrogen)’s new nitrogen plans are about. In some areas, nitrogen emissions must be reduced by 12%, in other places it can be as high as 70%.

For many farmers, it is completely unclear whether and, if so, how they can continue their business with the new nitrogen plans. The exact approach plan has not yet been determined, which is a task for the provinces.

The minister sees three options for farmers who are in trouble: to make the business more sustainable, move it or close it. Every scenario has a big impact, and not just financially. Agriculture is not only a source of income, but often also a place where families have been farming for generations. In short: the new nitrogen policy hits farmers both in the cut and in the heart. Therefore, a large group of farmers will once again board the tractor on June 22 to protest in The Hague.

Why is nitrogen a problem?

With too much nitrogen, nitrogen-loving plants – such as blackberries, stinging nettles and grasses – grow other plants that need less nitrogen. Many plant species are disappearing, but so are the animals and insects that feed on them as well. The same thing happens in nitrogen-rich puddles, ditches and lakes. An excess of nitrogen leads to more algae growth there. As a result, there is less oxygen in the water and fish and aquatic plants die.

An excess of nitrogen is therefore detrimental to biodiversity and creates a monotonous landscape. In areas such as Drentsche Aa, Dwingelderveld and Zuidlaardermeer, this is particularly worrying: these areas have been designated as Natura 2000. In Natura 2000 sites – a European network of protected natural areas – certain plants, animals and their natural habitats are protected to preserve biodiversity .

How does nitrogen get into the soil?

Two types of nitrogen are emitted in the Netherlands: ammonia (60%) and nitrogen oxides (40%). Ammonia is common in (artificial) fertilizers. The nitrogen in the manure evaporates and then precipitates in nature reserves, or is drained from agricultural land via the soil and groundwater. Nitrogen oxides are mainly released into the air through exhaust gases. This accumulates through precipitation from the air.

Not all nitrogen emitted by the Netherlands actually ends up in Dutch soil. Most of it blows away abroad. Of the nitrogen that falls out, 46% comes from agriculture, 32% from abroad, 6.1% from road traffic and 6.1% from households.

Is nitrogen a problem everywhere in Europe?

Nitrogen is a bigger problem in the Netherlands than elsewhere in Europe. It is very densely populated, has a large agricultural sector and has a lot of economic activity. As a result, the Netherlands emits almost four times as much as the European average. This makes the Netherlands the largest producer of nitrogen in the EU, followed by Belgium and Germany. That nitrogen is so problematic in the Netherlands is primarily due to the fact that many agricultural areas border nature reserves – which are often also designated as Natura 2000, and are therefore protected. This is less often the case in other European countries.

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