Lely advises: Our machine solves the nitrogen problem. Scientists have doubts

The miracle machine exists – if Spar CEO John van der Ent is to be believed. During a round table discussion at an event by the agrotech company Lely in Maassluis at the end of June, he says that the cabinet will spend 3 billion euros to buy a machine for every dairy farmer in the Netherlands that makes fertilizer from cow dung and urine. and reduces the emission of nitrogen by 70 percent.

The audience must laugh a little. Van der Ent is invited to participate in the discussion about the future of agriculture on stage, as is Minister of Agriculture Henk Staghouwer (ChristenUnie). The king is also present in the hall. According to Van der Ent, the ultra-modern ‘Lely Sphere’ can solve the nitrogen crisis in one fell swoop.

Staghouwer is not entirely convinced. According to him, innovations in agriculture have not always delivered what they promised, he says at the symposium after the panel debate. Innovation, he says, is not the holy grail.

Lely drew attention to the sphere in recent months. The company sent open letters in newspapers to Minister Christianne van der Wal (Nature and Nitrogen, VVD). In it A.D and Fidelity reports emerged of a satisfied farmer using the device. King Willem-Alexander, Minister Van der Wal and various Members of Parliament recently visited the company.

Theo Henrar, chairman of the industrial trade association FME, regularly mentions Lely’s innovations in interviews and speeches and praises the devices as innovative. They provide a huge nitrogen reduction and are cheaper “than buying out and remediating farmers,” he said in a speech in November 2021. Henrar and Ingrid Thijssen, president of the employers’ organization VNO-NCW, visited the company in Maassluis in February.

Last week, Lely announced that Rabobank and dairy company FrieslandCampina would help 96 farmers with the device at a lower price. The machines usually cost around a ton and a half each and can prevent the knife from entering the livestock, according to Lely CEO André van Troost. His hobby horse: contrary to what the cabinet intends, not ‘halve livestock, but renew’. According to him, this provides the solution to the nitrogen problems. The company, whose customers are mainly farmers, says it is “shocked” by the Cabinet plans.

Does innovation really provide a way out of the nitrogen crisis, or is Lely too optimistic?

The floor at farmer Ad van den Berg is relatively clean thanks to Lely’s fertilizer machine.
Photo Werry Crone/ANP/Hollandse Hoogte

Not just any farmer

The best-known user of the manure machine is farmer Ad van den Berg from Bleskensgraaf in South Holland. He has had countless journalists, members of parliament and ministers visit him. On his dairy farm Nescio with two hundred cows, they have all seen a relatively clean barn floor.

The urine falls directly through the stable floor, into a special room. A robot sweeps the feces into another room. By separating the two directly from each other, you prevent ammonia formation. A system then draws the air out of the house and turns the faeces into liquid fertilizer. “Dutch agriculture is the most modern in the world,” Van den Berg told AD.

Van den Berg is not just any farmer. He is the brother of the inventor of the Lely milking robot and regularly tests new company products on his farm. Founded in 1948 by two brothers, this group has grown in recent decades into a globally operating agrotechnology company (2021 revenue 611 million euros, 2,100 employees). It is best known for its fully automatic milking machines, the mainstay of its revenue. In the manufacturing industry, Lely is known as a Dutch success story that invests a lot of money in research. The company is proud of the ‘Lely campus’, a research site located in a modern glass building on the A20 in Maassluis.

The founding Van der Lely family is still a shareholder, but the day-to-day management of the company is in the hands of André van Troost (also one of the directors of the industry association FME).

He sees a big role for his company in the nitrogen crisis. According to the Rutte IV coalition agreement, nitrogen emissions must be halved by 2030 compared to 2019. A map published by Minister Van der Wal last month showed that there is almost no agriculture around vulnerable natural areas. The farmers fear that they will be bought out on a large scale or – even worse – expropriated.

According to Lely, it is not necessary at all. According to the company itself, innovations such as Sphere can largely solve the crisis. Through the nitrogen approach, the cabinet wants to “have the farmers’ land”, public affairs manager Frank van Ooijen emailed in April to NRC. “That’s the hidden agenda.”

Lobby for subsidies

Lely’s story appeals to farmers. Sjaak van der Tak, chairman of the rural housing organization LTO, explicitly mentions the Sphere as an alternative to the cabinet plans in interviews. The scheme with Rabobank and FrieslandCampina, which allowed 96 farmers to get cheaper fertilizer equipment, reached the maximum number of registrations within two hours.

Meanwhile, Lely is lobbying in The Hague for a subsidy that will make it easier for farmers to buy the fertilizer. It makes sense, according to Lely: independent tests show that the device reduces ammonia emissions from stables by 70 percent, and those from the entire farm by around 33 percent. It is often too expensive for a farmer to buy a Sphere – and there are also maintenance costs. Only a dozen farmers have the device in their farm.

According to experts, the Sphere looks like an invention. “This is a well-thought-out system,” says Jan Willem Erisman, professor of environment and sustainability at Leiden University. According to him, many previous innovations – such as air scrubbers that filter the air in barns before it is blown over farmland – have not delivered the promised results. Scientific studies also show this. But the sphere must be judged on its own merits, says Erisman.

This is how you give farmers false hope

Jan Willem Erisman professor of environment

But the professor is critical of the perspectives that Lely outlines. The high reduction percentage that Lely shows is a ‘preliminary measurement’ that only applies to the stables, says Erisman. And the tests were only carried out on a small group of farmers. To be sure that a device works, measurements must be made over a longer period of time in different places in the country in several stables. Until that has happened, says Erisman, it is “dangerous” to make an investment of one and a half tons, because it is unclear what exactly it will give.

The problems in agriculture do not only concern nitrogen, but also issues such as climate problems and water quality. According to associate professor at the Open University, Raoul Beunen, there is a risk in unilaterally focusing on ammonia reduction – as is the case with technical solutions such as the Sphere. “The Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency has already pointed out that reducing livestock numbers may be even more important for solving the climate problem than for the nitrogen crisis.”

In other words: If you, as a farmer, only invest extra in nitrogen reduction, it may be lost money in ten years’ time, because then it may still be decided to shrink livestock for the sake of the climate. Erisman: “This is how you give farmers false hope.”

Erisman was also given a tour of Bleskensgraaf. Later he was contacted by Lely employees because he spoke critically in the media about the technological possibilities for reducing ammonia. “They thought I was too negative about the technology and that the device can do more than I said,” says Erisman. “Then I explained that there is more to it than just capturing ammonia.” A spokesman for Lely says he does not know if Erisman was called.

Minister Staghouwer also emphasized at the Lely meeting that the nitrogen budget is equally intended for climate and water and not just for nitrogen reduction. He also said that it must first be shown whether the 70 percent reduction claimed by Lely is really correct. There is therefore no prospect of a special subsidy for the Sphere yet.

A Lely spokesman acknowledges the results are “preliminary” but hopes they will be final before the end of the year. “And they only seem to be getting better.”

Other innovations are necessary to tackle the water and climate problem, acknowledges the Lely spokesman. He doesn’t know what technical solutions it should be. “I can’t judge it that well, but I think we can go very far with a combination of things.”

If livestock is to shrink considerably, “we are all making a huge mistake in the Netherlands”, according to the spokesman. “Time will tell, but I think it’s not quite there yet.”

Based on the budget reserved for this from the nitrogen pot – more than 1 billion of the total of more than 24 billion – innovation will play a limited role in the nitrogen reduction plans. The Lely spokesman: “That is why we are constantly communicating.”

In collaboration with Titia Ketelaar

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