Photo: Kees Torn (Flickr)

Nature groups call for dialogue as Dutch farmers protests turn violent

Farm protests have turned violent in the Netherlands after the Dutch government announced plans to cut harmful emissions from agriculture. Environmental groups have called for cooperation.

In an open letter published in the press earlier this month (translated below) nature and environmental groups call for the ongoing debate – dubbed the “nitrogen crisis” – to be used as an opportunity to boost nature and protect our health in cooperation with farmers.

Most farmers taking part in the protests joined peacefully by creating impressive convoys of tractors on highways and blocking streets around the Hague.

However, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte condemned a minority that resorted to dangerous and threatening tactics, saying: “Demonstration is allowed if you follow the rules, if not, the law applies.”

Earlier this week farmers in the city of Groningen hung a noose from a tree and broke open the doors of the town hall. One man was arrested for driving his tractor into a police horse.

Farmers are unhappy about new measures to cut ammonia, nitrogen oxide and nitrous oxide pollution from farms. Existing rules were found to be in breach of EU laws to protect biodiversity.

Emissions from farms are often responsible for a large percentage of harmful air pollution in urban areas with serious consequences for human health and the natural and built environment.

Children, pregnant women and the elderly are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of air pollution.

This week the European Environment Agency published its annual Air Quality in Europe report. It revealed that while the situation is improving across Europe, the negative impacts of air pollution are still enormous and that emissions from agriculture had actually been rising since 2013.

Celia Nyssens, Agriculture Policy Officer at the EEB said:

“It’s important to recognise the economic pressures on farmers in a food system that puts industrial production first. Three quarters of food produced in the Netherlands is exported yet farmers are incentivised to produce more and more.”

Nyssens says that intensive animal farming is the biggest source of nitrogen pollution, which affects air and water quality:

“The push to produce more food, more cheaply have brought environmental pressures to breaking point and put Dutch farmers against a wall. The only sensible way forward is to transition away from this intensive model of production and towards a farming system which is able to produce good quality food in a sustainable way while ensuring good incomes for farmers.”

Farmers in the Netherlands have argued that they are being unfairly targeted and suggest that other sectors should also be targeted for emissions cuts.

Margherita Tolotto, an air quality expert at the EEB says that while it is true that additional efforts must also be made to cut emissions from transport, industry and household heating, action to cut emissions from agriculture has been delayed for many years:

“Every sector needs to make an effort here, there’s no single solution that will clean up all air pollution. Unfortunately, agriculture has really been the last to act and the sector been delaying action.”

Tolotto argues that a new approach is needed with the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which is failing to meet environmental objectives. She also highlighted the disproportionate impact of the ver largest farms:

“Actually, 80% of ammonia emission in the EU came from just 5% of the farms.”

It’s possible!

Earlier this month a group of leading Dutch nature and environmental organisations, including EEB members Natuur en Millieu, Landschappen NL, Milieudefensie, and Natuurmonumenten published this open letter in the Dutch press. You can read the original Dutch version of this letter here:

The Netherlands can be a crowded delta where people and nature flourish. But for years the government has pursued a policy of economic growth at the expense of nature. The result is a nitrogen crisis, where the parties are pointing at each other. We should use this moment as an opportunity to restore nature and build a sustainable economy.

Nature is for everyone. Without nature, there’s no life, no food, no clean air, no viable climate and no pleasant space for us to live, work and play. Our nature has been neglected. The Netherlands has the least nature in Europe and the number of animal species, including insects and birds, is declining.

Too much nitrogen is not only bad for nature, but also for our health. The blanket of nitrogen over our country contributes to the large-scale air pollution. It’s time for a major change that will benefit nature, farmers and citizens.

We, the undersigned nature organizations, want a country where our nature is doing well, where the air is healthy, the soil fertile and the water clean. We want to be able to cycle and walk in a landscape full of flowers, birds, butterflies and other animals. We want a future where farmers produce food and work together with nature.

It’s now up to the government. We ask them to show courage by making solid choices and by making enough money available to get this done. This means investing in farmers so that they can make the transition to nature-friendly, circular agriculture and earn a good living with fewer animals. This means investing in large-scale nature restoration so that nature reserves are resilient again. Other sectors, such as transport, industry, aviation and construction must also make ambitious contribution as quickly as possible: lowering maximum speed limits and delivering sustainable construction are essential examples.

Come on, let’s work together!


Natuur & Milieu, Landschappen NL, Milieudefensie, SoortenNL, Natuurmonumenten, De Natuur en Milieufederaties, Vogelbescherming Nederland, WWF, Vlinderstichting, IUCN, Greenpeace, Ravon en Floron

Together with DUH, FNE and the Lake Constance Foundation, the EEB has launched the ‘Clean Air Farming‘ project to help reduce ammonia and methane emissions from agriculture.

The Project Clean Air Farming (LIFE17 GIE/DE/610 Air & Agriculture) is co-financed by the LIFE-Programme of the European Commission.