MAASLAND, Netherlands -- Hay bales are burning on Dutch highways. Supermarket shelves are empty because farmers have blocked the distribution centers. A police officer then pulls out his gun and fires at a tractor at dusk.
The discontent is not abating for Dutch farmers. Their goal? Their target? To reduce nitrogen oxide and ammonia emissions, the government plans.
These targets could have a profound impact on the Netherlands' highly profitable agriculture sector. This sector is well-known for its intensive farming practices. They may also be a precursor to similar reforms and protests in other European countries whose farmers also produce pollutants.
This chaos seems far away Friday at Jaap Zigwaard’s dairy farm. It covers 80 hectares (200 acres), of grassland near Rotterdam. His fields are surrounded by cranes and chimneys.
Zegwaard's 180-strong herd, mostly black and White Holstein-Friesians cattle, grazes in meadows near a traditional Dutch windmill. Even though the farm has been in Zegwaard’s family for over five generations, roughly 200 years, Zegwaard doesn’t know if he would recommend farming to his 7-year-old daughter or 3-year-old twin brothers.
The 41-year old said, "If you ask now, I'd tell you, please don't even consider it," There are many worries. It's too beautiful to worry about what's happening in the agricultural sector right now.
He said, "Ask an average farmer: It's profoundly tragic."
The Dutch government and farmers are at the core of their conflict. They are trying to protect people's health and natural habitats from pollution by nitrogen oxides, ammonia and transport.
The Netherlands is a country of 17.5 millions people, with just over 1,000,000 calves being raised for meat. It has 1.57million registered dairy cows and just under 1 million calves. In 2019, the country's farms exported 94.5 billion euros.
Ammonia and nitrogen oxides increase soil nutrient levels, acidity and biodiversity. The effects of airborne nitrogen on the environment are smog and small particles that can be harmful to human health.
The Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court and legislative advisory board, ruled that the Dutch nitrogen emission control policies were not adequate in 2019. This forced the government into considering more severe measures.
The Dutch government revealed a map showing nitrogen reduction targets. It called it "unavoidable transition" and said that the next year would bring clarity to farmers about "whether or not they can continue their business." According to the minister, farmers have three choices: they can become more sustainable, move or cease.
The Dutch government has set a goal to reduce nitrogen emissions by half by 2030. To do this, they have allocated an additional 24.3 billion euros ($25.6 trillion) to finance the efforts. The provincial authorities have one year to prepare plans to achieve the reductions.
Wim de Vries is a Wageningen University and Research professor and nitrogen expert. He doubts that the deadline is achievable.
It seems very fast and there is a history, already for 40+ years because the problem was more severe in the 1980s. He said that it was then known as "acid rain". It doesn't matter if it takes 7-10 or 12 years to complete this task, considering that history. Nature will improve over time, and we have to wait decades.
Farmers have protested for years against government nitrogen policies. But the emission targets unleashed new demonstrations with tractors blocking highways and supermarket distribution centres that temporarily led to shortages of fresh produce.
Outside the residence of the minister responsible for nitrogen policies, farmers also clashed against police. A 16-year old tractor was attacked by an officer this week. The young driver was initially held under suspicion of attempted murder. He was later released without charges.
The Dutch government appointed a veteran negotiator to act in the role of a middleman. However, the gesture was instantly rejected by activists farmers and the largest agricultural lobby group in the country.
LTO, a lobby group representing farmers, stated that "the government doesn't offer any space for entering into a real discussion." "Speaking with the mediator under these conditions is futile."
Nearly half of Dutch farms are represented by the LTO. The LTO describes the nitrogen reduction target for the Netherlands as "simply impossible." In 2019, Dutch farms exported 94.5 billion euros.
According to the group, the government is focusing on buying up livestock and reducing livestock numbers and not enough on innovation and sustainable farming practices.
According to environmentalists, now is the right time to take action.
Andy Palmen, Greenpeace Netherlands director, said that you can rip off a plaster in one go. "Painful decisions are now required."
Zegwaard owns a farm in an area where government seeks only a 12% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. However, he supports protests and shows solidarity with others.
"An average person sees the Netherlands as a polluter of nitrogen, while we are a food producer." He told The Associated Press that it seems people have forgotten this.
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