There 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.
However, there is a catch: The nation’s 1.8 million cows are producing so much manure that there is not enough space to get rid of it safely.
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.
The WWF is calling for a 40 percent cut in cow numbers in the Netherlands 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 percent of our original biodiversity left,” WWF Netherlands Food and Agriculture head Natasja Oerlemans said.
About 80 percent 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 550 million euros (US$682.41 million) 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 EU, 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, said 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,” said 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,” he said.
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, the Dutch Dairy Association said.
“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,” a spokesperson said.
However, political support for dairy in the Netherlands is waning, with this year’s Dutch elections seeing a surge in support for two parties prioritizing restrictions on the livestock sector, The GreenLeft and Party for the Animals.
The main milk processor in the country, FrieslandCampina, which collects 80 percent of Dutch milk, has also started paying extra to farmers who allow their cows to graze outdoors and is working with the WWF to improve biodiversity levels on farms.
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