Dutch policies guided by EU Habitat Directive of 1992
The history of the current Dutch policy goes back decades and originates with the European Union. In 1992, the European Commission adopted the Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC) intended to conserve natural habitat and wild fauna and flora. It led to the establishment of the Natura 2000
ecological network of protected areas. In 2019, the Dutch Council of State ruled
that the Netherlands’ nitrogen program (with the acronym PAS), implemented in 2015, conflicted with the EU’s 1992 Habitats Directive and could no longer be used to grant permits. This resulted in many construction projects being put on hold, and some politicians suggesting that the number of livestock be cut in half, as the agricultural industry was responsible for 46% of nitrogen emissions.Not surprisingly, Dutch farmers didn’t agree. In October 2019
, over two thousand of them drove their tractors in a slow procession to the capital, The Hague, creating traffic jams of over 1000 kilometers, the biggest in Dutch history. They were protesting not only proposed government policies but stereotypes that painted them as “animal abusers and environmental polluters.” And they had a point. The Netherlands is already highly efficient at “manure management” relative to other European countries (as shown in Figure 4 in this article
). Although about one-third of the nitrogen pollution deposited in the Netherlands comes from other countries, its neighbours have so far not imposed such tough restrictions. It is possible, however, that EU courts will impose decisions similar to that of the Dutch Council of State in the future.Is Canada going Dutch on nitrogen?
Canada’s government would also like to reduce N2
O emissions. Last year, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau announced plans
to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with fertilizers by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. Like their Dutch counterparts, Canadian farmers already use fertilizer very efficiently. But it was only after Canadian farmers engaged in some slow-roll demonstrations
across Canada on July 23rd
in solidarity with protesting Dutch farmers that the government began consulting with “stakeholders” about its fertilizer emissions reduction plan.
As one farmer from Saskatchewan put it, “We’re trying to maximize output and we are just barely keeping up with what the world requires on an annual basis. It seems like the climate crisis is trumping the food crisis that we were discussing last decades, and just wondering which direction we’re going to be going next.”
The government of Canada assures its farmers that their targets will not be mandatory and that it is in consultation with industry experts. One can’t blame farmers for being a bit skeptical, however, especially after government agents were found trespassing on the land of several Saskatchewan farmers to take, without permission, water samples from the farmers’ dugouts. According to an agent taking the samples, they were to be tested for pesticide and nitrate levels. This led Jeremy Cockrill, the minister responsible for the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency, to write an open letter to the federal environment minister, Steven Guilbeault, demanding an explanation. There were suggestions that the samples taken surreptitiously by government agents were intended to be used as baseline measurements to enforce future reductions in fertilizer use, something that Guilbeault denied.
Sri Lanka: storming the palace of bright environmental ideas
Fortunately, so far, the situation in the Netherlands has not escalated to the turbulence experienced by Sri Lanka this summer following last year’s hastily imposed nitrogen policies. In April of 2021, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued an immediate ban on chemical fertilizer following a promise he had made during his election campaign two years earlier to transition the country to organic farming over ten years. The abrupt ban led to an implosion of the agricultural sector, a major pillar of the Sri Lankan economy. More than 80% of Sri Lanka’s population is rural, and over 70% of the rural population depends on agriculture. Prior to the ban, synthetic fertilizer had been heavily subsidized and had enabled Sri Lanka, despite its growing population, to become self-sufficient in rice and to export tea. Without synthetic fertilizer, crop yields dropped dramatically, between 20 and 70% depending on the crop, and small farmers in particular were devastated.