here is a dirty stench emanating from the Dutch dairy sector. The industry is, by most measures, hugely successful: despite the small size of the country, it is the fifth largest exporter of dairy and has a much-touted reputation as the tiny country that feeds the world.
But there’s a catch: the nation’s 1.8 million cows are producing so much manure that there isn’t enough space to get rid of it safely.
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As a result, farmers are dumping cow poo illegally, the country is breaking EU regulations on phosphates designed to prevent groundwater contamination, and the high levels of ammonia emissions are affecting air quality.
As a result, WWF is calling for a 40% cut in cow numbers over the next decade, and a return to a dairy sector that can deal with its own dung.
“We have improved productivity and efficiency substantially over the past decades but against what environmental costs? We have the lowest biodiversity in Europe after Malta, with only 15% of our original biodiversity left,” says Natasja Oerlemans, head of agriculture at WWF Netherlands.
About 80% of farms in the Netherlands produce more dung than they can legally use on their farm. To get around the limits, farmers pay an estimated €550m a year to get the manure removed. A recently uncovered fraud found a number of them had been avoiding the cost altogether by transporting the manure off-farm on paper, but in reality dumping it on farm fields.
The Dutch are already allowed to spread more manure on land than the rest of the European Union, but a large expansion in the sector in recent years has seen phosphate levels repeatedly exceeded. Under pressure from the EU, the Dutch government has now been forced to pay farmers compensation to try to get them to reduce cow numbers.
It has been a rude wake-up call for farmers, admits Wiebren van Stralen, a former policy adviser for the Dutch farmers’ union, LTO Nederland. He says the recent growth in dairy has been sustained by cheap imports of grain, soy and maize, with excess production ending up as low-value milk powder exports.
“We don’t want to be seen as part of the intensive livestock sector,” says Richard Scheper, a dairy analyst at Rabobank. “The Netherlands is like a big city. Everyone has a house, good life and enough to eat so they think about nature. The pressure is higher than poorer or more rural countries.”
Not everyone is convinced the country needs immediate saving from cow pats. Martin Scholten, director of animal science at Wageningen University, says reducing dairy output would “ignore our responsibility to feed the world”.
The fate of the country’s cows should ultimately depend on the market, says the Dutch Dairy Association. “The numbers of dairy consumers worldwide are growing; as exporting countries it would be naive to stop exporting our products and only our knowledge. This area is mostly designed for producing dairy,” said a spokesperson.
However, political support for dairy in the Netherlands is waning, with last year’s Dutch elections seeing a surge support for two parties prioritising restrictions on the livestock sector, The GreenLeft party and Party for the Animals. The main milk processor in the country, FrieslandCampina, which collects 80% of Dutch milk, has also started paying extra to farmers who allow their cows to graze outdoors and is working with WWF to improve biodiversity levels on farms.
Hans Van Trijp, a professor of marketing and consumer behaviour at Wageningen University, believes the days of the Dutch dairy sector in its current state are numbered. “If you were to redesign the Netherlands and were not tied to the status quo, would you do it again?” he asks. “The answer is probably not.”