Hundreds of Dutch farmers sign up to close their livestock farms under new scheme

he Farmers Defense Force flag, right, and Dutch flags, fly in the wind on an intersection blocked by tractors in The Hague, Netherlands, 19 February 2020.
he Farmers Defense Force flag, right, and Dutch flags, fly in the wind on an intersection blocked by tractors in The Hague, Netherlands, 19 February 2020. Copyright AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File
By Angela Symons with AP
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The EU has approved a €1.5 billion scheme to buy out Dutch farmers and reduce nitrogen emissions.

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Over 750 Dutch farmers have signed up for a government buy-out scheme, although it will take months before it's clear if the plan will be put into practice. 

It is part of the Netherlands’ drive to drastically slash nitrogen emissions, a major source of which is livestock farms.

Farmers in the Netherlands have been staging protests over emissions reduction targets since October 2019.

Nearly €1.5 billion was earmarked earlier this year to compensate farmers who voluntarily close farms located near nature reserves. Some 3,000 farms are expected to be eligible.

The outgoing ruling coalition wants to cut emissions, predominantly nitrogen oxide and ammonia, by 50 per cent nationwide by 2030.

Why does the Netherlands want to close down farms?

Despite its small size, the Netherlands is the world’s second-biggest exporter of agricultural products by value behind the US. 

Dutch agricultural exports were worth €122.3 billion last year, according to the national statistics office.

Intensive farming has left the small nation with higher nitrogen oxide levels than EU regulations allow. These emissions worsen climate change and can harm biodiversity.

In recent years, government proposals to cut nitrogen emissions have included reducing livestock numbers by a third. Some farmers feared they would face compulsory buyouts to achieve this goal.

The recently approved voluntary strategy involves buying up and halting work at farms responsible for large-scale emissions of nitrogen.

In May, the country received confirmation from the European Commission that the plans are permissible under state aid rules.

“The schemes will improve the environment conditions in those areas and will promote a more sustainable and environmentally friendly production in the livestock sector, without unduly distorting competition,” said Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President in charge of competition policy, in a statement approving the aid.

What do farmers think about the buyout scheme?

Agricultural organisation LTO said buyouts must be “designed in such a way that they really offer farmers who stop voluntarily the opportunity to properly end their business.”

The organisation also called for “transition schemes” that would allow farmers to reduce nitrogen emissions using methods such as technical innovation or switching to other agricultural activities.

“This is the only way farmers can make an informed and well-considered decision about their future,” LTO said.

A pro-agriculture political party won Dutch provincial elections in March, underscoring the depth of discontent among farmers fuelled by the nitrogen reduction plans. Earlier this year, the Dutch central government tasked provincial legislatures with formulating and implementing exact proposals to reduce nitrogen emissions.

Farmers held several large demonstrations, blocking highways and supermarket warehouses last year to protest the reforms that they cast as an existential threat to their way of life.

The demonstrations have also spread to neighbouring Belgium, where hundreds of farmers drove their tractors into downtown Brussels last month to protest plans to cut nitrogen pollution.

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