NUcheckt checks messages for their reliability. This time we look at some of the claims made by farmers about why they are protesting the nitrogen measures. There are a lot of wrong assumptions and misleading information in between.By: Robbert van der Linde
In addition to blocking highways and distribution centers, farmers also hand out flyers explaining why they are protesting. For example, residents of the Nieuwkoopse Plassen, a nature reserve on the border of South Holland and Utrecht, received an A4 sheet in their mailbox with the hashtag #trotsopdeboer at the top, signed by ‘The farmers of the Netherlands’. Similar flyers also fell on the mats of local residents in other natural areas, or were handed out on the street.
It is difficult to find out exactly where the flyers come from, because it is not clear whether there is an organization behind the hashtag #trotsopdeboer. On Twitter, the hashtag, along with #boereninopstand, is used by people to express their support for the farmers.
It should be noted, however, that the farmers’ protests are not always coordinated. There are interest groups such as Agractie and Farmers Defense Force (FDF), but that certainly does not mean that all farmers in the Netherlands can be lumped together and talk with the same mouth. The claims discussed in this fact check cannot therefore be seen as general views of farmers in the Netherlands.
The flyer claims that ammonia (NH3) is not a poison, but nitrogen oxide (NOx) is. According to the farmers, the government “sees no difference and exchanges them for each other”. The two substances are created in different ways, but they are both harmful to humans and nature.
When nitrogen (N) attaches to oxygen (O) or hydrogen (H), reactive nitrogen is formed. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) and ammonia (NH3) are the main examples of this. Nitrogen oxides are mainly emitted by industry and traffic. Agriculture is largely responsible for ammonia emissions, for example through the use of manure.
It is true that ammonia in itself does not necessarily have to be harmful to nature. Natural nitrogen compounds occur in the soil and are important nutrients for plants. The problem arises when too much nitrogen is present due to human activities. This can lead to acidification of the soil and also contribute to the greenhouse effect, which is very harmful to the environment.
The flyer also states that the European agreed targets are not about nitrogen, but about “conservation of nature”. Although the conservation of nature is indeed the ultimate goal, the European Union also agrees that nitrogen “in high concentrations is harmful to people and the environment”. Limiting nitrogen emissions is an important part of preserving nature.
Legislation for the protection of natural areas has been agreed at European level, but it is up to the Member States of the European Union themselves to regulate the approach. For all Natura 2000 areas in the EU, nature must in any case not deteriorate. In the Netherlands, but also in Belgium, for example, harmful nitrogen threatens many Natura 2000 areas. Harmful nitrogen causes blackberries, nettles and grasses to overgrow vulnerable nature.
The flyer states that the nitrogen targets in the Netherlands are much stricter than in Germany and Denmark, for example. A direct comparison between countries is skewed, however, because the circumstances in countries differ. As early as 2008, a task force appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture concluded that the Netherlands has not been stricter than other countries when it comes to protecting nature.
The task force did write that the high population and livestock density mean that the Natura 2000 areas in the Netherlands are burdened more heavily with harmful nitrogen. This makes it more difficult not to let nature deteriorate and European rules become more restrictive in the Netherlands than in other countries.
The government’s nitrogen policy is partly based on the measurements of the RIVM. These have been questioned by farmers for some time, and that is also the case in the flyer. It is stated, for example, that RIVM continues to “obstinately” stick to model calculations that would deviate from reality.
RIVM maintains five different measurement networks that carry out measurements of nitrogen oxides or ammonia in the air, precipitation and soil at almost 150 locations. These measurements are performed to check whether the nitrogen calculations correspond to practice. These calculations are based on models, in which estimates of nitrogen emissions are made on the basis of industrial and agricultural activity.
If the models and measurements yield the same figures, RIVM considers the nitrogen figures to be sufficiently reliable. The Advisory Board for Measuring and Calculating Nitrogen already concluded in 2020 that the measurements and calculations of the RIVM are “sufficient to good”.
As a scientific institute, RIVM has no direct interest in the research results. In order to prevent a conflict between the scientific integrity of RIVM and government interests, the so-called RIVM Act has been in existence since 1996. This states that RIVM always publishes research results without the intervention of a client. In that sense, the independence of RIVM is guaranteed by law.
It is understandable that the farmers (want to) question the measurements of the RIVM, but it is not objective. As emeritus professor Leen Hordijk, chair of the Advisory Board on Measuring and Calculating Nitrogen, said to NU.nl earlier: “Interest groups that can no longer be right, try to negate clear scientific results.”
The flyer also discusses the Dutch export of products, something we already looked at in our fact check about the statement ‘No food without farmers’ (and variants thereof). We then concluded that although farmers play an important role in food production, the Dutch will not have less food on the plate if there are fewer farmers.
The vast majority of production (70 percent) is exported abroad. On the other hand, the Netherlands also imports a lot of food from other countries. In fact, more than 80 percent of the land needed to meet Dutch consumption is located abroad. The Netherlands has enough agricultural land to feed its own population, but that land is largely outside our own national borders.
The flyer asks what the Netherlands will do if other countries only produce for their own consumption (“where will you get your bread then?”), and whether it would not be selfish if the Netherlands no longer exports food. There is no mention of either case. The Netherlands and our trading partners are and will remain dependent on each other.
Farmers are particularly concerned that the nitrogen plans will force many of them to stop working altogether and lose their jobs. This is also apparent from the text in the flyer.
As NU.nl explained earlier, there are also other options for farmers to emit less nitrogen than to stop altogether. Fewer farmers means less nitrogen emissions, of course, but it is absolutely not necessary (and therefore not a goal of the policy) to have all farmers stop. Farmers who are willing to stop will receive compensation for this. That process is called buying out farmers. This is always voluntary; farmers cannot be forced to buy out.
Farmers who don’t want to stop and don’t want to be bought out can make changes to the way they work. For example, they can feed their animals less protein, dilute manure with water, put cows in the meadow (instead of the barn) more often and reduce the amount of young stock.
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