Nitrogen is like a building block of life but its overuse as a fertiliser and other commercial purposes turned it into a blight for mankind. Once nitrogen leaks into the environment it poisons the air, soil and water, alters ecosystems and destroys biodiversity and disturbs the delicate balance of greenhouse gases. It clogs water bodies with algae growth which is fatal for fish and if ingested by human beings, it can lead to bowel cancer. Equally harmful are nitrogen oxides emitted by car exhausts, farm soils, livestock and fertilisers construction equipment.
Europe with its limited landmass engages in intensive farming techniques. It has a high consumption of nitrogen and as a result, heavy pollution- about 80% of Europe’s freshwater exceeds the maximum threshold for nitrogen. As per a study, excess nitrogen costs the EU between Euro 70 to 320 Billion per year in terms of various negative fallouts. To control this, European countries brought out the 1999 Gothenburg Protocol, a multi-pollutant protocol ratified by 26 parties, which includes 25 states and the EU.
The biggest culprits are agriculture and the construction industry. Approximately half of the nitrogen used as fertilisers leaks back as pollution or is wasted by denitrification. Research has shown that in the Netherlands, 70% of the surface area exceeds critical limits for nitrogen.
In May, the highest court in the Netherlands put on hold over 1800 infra projects citing a violation of EU legislation by construction and farming activities, which are emitting large amounts of nitrogen. In response, thousands of angry Dutch farmers have been out on the streets on their tractors in cities such as the Hague causing the ‘biggest Traffic Jam ever’ -over 1,136 kilometres long- and bringing life to a standstill.
The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter after the US. However, spatially the Netherlands is much smaller (41, 453 sq. km compared 9.834 million sq. km of US). As a result, Dutch farm holdings are clustered together and are often found at the periphery of protected areas of the Natura 2000 network, the EU’s bloc-wide scheme to protect natural areas.
Basing its argument upon statistics, the ruling Coalition party D66 has sought a solution by reducing livestock holdings by half. This would enable the construction projects to proceed without infringing nitrogen limits set by the EU. As per the D66 parliamentarian Tjeerd de Groot, "70 per cent of Dutch nitrogen emissions come from agriculture, a large part of which comes from intensive livestock farming. That is huge. At the same time, the contribution of intensive livestock farming to our own economy is not even 1 per cent. The ratio is completely missing."
The D66 has offered farmers financial support to switch to cycle farming- in which animals only eat food that humans do not eat. This means the farmer is no longer reliant on animal feed and fertiliser from abroad. It will also reduce the farmers’ ability to maintain huge livestock holdings and will automatically lead to fewer animals. The D66 proposes cutting the number of pigs by 6 million and chickens by 50 million.
The farmers, who are a major vote bank of the coalition parties, are livid as they have been singled out to make concessions for other industries like construction and aviation, which are even bigger polluters.
- The conflict of demands between income for a large farming sector and housing needs of its substantial middle class, has led to the current standoff in the Netherlands. The EU designated green cover is also being impinged upon as mandated stand-off distances are impossible to maintain while creating habitations in close proximity of green spaces. Therefore, international legislatures need greater diligence at the formulation stage of environmental laws as they result in the impasse at the implementation and thus fail to achieve their objectives.
- The Netherlands is illustrative of states finding themselves in a Catch 22 situation- to implement environmental protocols for the larger good results in conflict with their own population. However, all have to be prepared for sacrifices and a drastic change in the way we live and work if the planet has to be saved- there is no painless solution.
- For almost a century, farming techniques are more focussed upon profits vis a vis preservation of soil and ecosystem, causing huge long term depredations. These techniques have to give way to more nature-friendly methods while at the same time ensuring food production does not dip drastically.
The 2017 Indian Nitrogen Assessment (INA) reached the conclusion that nitrogen pollution is mainly caused by agriculture. Out of the 17 million metric tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser used annually, only 33% is usefully absorbed by plants while the rest leaks into the soil causing a cascade of environmental and health impacts. While India is one of the few countries to have conducted the INA, it has much more to do to effectively reduce the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers.
Image Courtesy: The San Diego Union-Tribune