Farmers protested around the Netherlands as lawmakers voted Tuesday on proposals to slash emissions of damaging pollutants, a plan that will likely force farmers to cut their livestock herds or stop work altogether.
The government says emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia, which livestock produce, must be drastically reduced close to nature areas that are part of a network of protected habitats for endangered plants and wildlife stretching across the 27-nation European Union.
As tractors gathered outside the parliament building, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said farmers have the right to protest but not to break the law.
“Freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate are a vital part of our democratic society, and I will always defend them," Rutte said. "But ... it is not acceptable to create dangerous situations, it is not acceptable to intimidate officials, we will never accept that.”
WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT PROPOSING?
The ruling coalition wants to cut emissions of pollutants, predominantly nitrogen oxide and ammonia, by 50% nationwide by 2030. Ministers call the proposal an “unavoidable transition” that aims to improve air, land and water quality.
They warn that farmers will have to adapt or face the prospect of shuttering their businesses.
“The honest message ... is that not all farmers can continue their business,” and those who do will likely have to farm differently, the government said in a statement this month as it unveiled emission reduction targets.
Livestock produce ammonia in their urine and feces. The government in the past has called on farmers to use feed for their animals that contains less protein as a way of reducing ammonia emissions. The problem is compounded in the Netherlands, which is known for its intensive farming practices, with large numbers of livestock kept on small areas of land.
It is not only farmers being targeted. In the past, the government also has cut the national maximum speed limit on highways from 130 kilometers per hour (80 miles per hour) to 100 kmh during the day as a way of reducing nitrogen oxide created by vehicle engines.
The government has been forced to take action after a series of court rulings that blocked infrastructure and construction projects because of fears they would cause emissions that breach environmental rules. It is giving provincial authorities a year to work out ways to meet the emission reduction targets.
WHAT ARE FARMERS DOING?
Some 40,000 farmers gathered last week in the central Netherlands’ agricultural heartland to protest the government's plans. Many arrived by tractor, snarling traffic around the country.
On Monday and into Tuesday, farmers again took their protests to crowded highways, driving slowly along the roads or stopping altogether. Some have dumped hay bales on roads, and small groups demonstrated at town and city halls, in some cases starting bonfires outside the buildings.
Some farmers set hay bales ablaze Tuesday alongside highways, while others gathered in towns and cities, including The Hague.
Farmers argue that they are being unfairly targeted as polluters while other industries, such as aviation, construction and transport, also are contributing to emissions and face less far-reaching rules. They also say the government is not giving them a clear picture of their futures amid the proposed reforms.
WHAT ARE THE NATURE AREAS THAT ARE THREATENED?
The government has published a map with reduction targets across the country based on proximity to areas designated as part of the EU's Natura 2000 network of vulnerable and endangered plant and animal habitats. There are Natura 2000 sites across the 27 member states, covering 18% of the bloc's land area and 8% of its marine territory.
On its website, the European Commission says conservation and sustainable use of Natura 200 areas is “largely centered on people working with nature rather than against it. However, Member States must ensure that the sites are managed in a sustainable manner, both ecologically and economically.”
Dutch farmers argue that other EU countries are not clamping down on the agricultural industry as hard as the Netherlands. During a protest Monday, a group of farmers at a Dutch Natura 2000 region near the German border put up flags and a “Welcome to Germany” sign to symbolically make it part of the neighboring country.
HOW IMPORTANT IS AGRICULTURE TO THE DUTCH ECONOMY?
Agriculture — from dairy farming to growing crops in fields and greenhouses — is a significant part of the Dutch economy.
According to a national farming lobby group, LTO, there are nearly 54,000 agricultural businesses in the Netherlands with exports totaling 94.5 billion euros in 2019.