Even the government party VVD must admit that the nitrogen approach in the Rutte IV government has so far yielded little or nothing.
It’s been four years since the Council of State suspended the policy of neglect (PAS), and the House of Representatives is halfway through its term after two years. Uncertainty among farmers is greater than ever, new construction projects are at risk and business confidence in the Netherlands has eroded, VVD MP Tom van Campen said during the debate on the $1 billion fund for nature and agriculture in April.
Laura Bromet of the opposition party GroenLinks concluded at the time that “the only action we have taken is that we have started driving at 100km/h on the motorway”.
Let’s finally start now with, for example, the coalition parties VVD, D66, CDA and ChristenUnie. Since this week, Brussels has agreed to buy farmers in natural areas at risk, including peak risers, which are major nitrogen emitters. These support plans should go into effect on July 1. The government hopes the 3,000 top peak taxpayers plus 10,000 other livestock farmers will voluntarily make their activities more sustainable, relocate or stop them – otherwise coercion could follow next year.
In mid-May, the cabinet also hopes to conclude an agricultural summary agreement with farmers, provinces, supermarkets and nature organizations. A kind of roadmap for sustainable and animal-friendly “circular farming” in 2040, where farmers no longer burden nature, water and climate, but improve it.
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Next week, the House of Representatives will continue to debate the €24.3 billion fund for nature and agriculture, with a vote likely to come the following week. This debate was suspended for the evening of April, because there were more than a hundred questions and 25 amendments to Nitrogen Minister Christian van der Waal (VVD) – who, like the House of Representatives, still had to dine.
The Rural and Nature Transition Fund should, among other things, help cut nitrogen emissions in half. The coalition is only divided on whether the target year will remain 2030 or 2035. The CDA wants to negotiate this sometime in the coming months. In any case, the legal term of the fund is until 2035, so that the Cabinet can use it in all directions.
It almost seems like the nitrogen approach is at a tipping point – and more progress may come from the summer.
But it remains to be guessed how many farmers and factories will want to cooperate in the tax peak scheme, or whether the government will become embroiled in lengthy expropriation proceedings. There are no agricultural agreements yet, no signatures and no content to judge. A billion dollar fund bill would likely be approved by the House of Representatives, but would have to be passed by the Senate, where a majority is not an axiom.
If the fund is delayed, this does not mean that the government can do nothing now. For example, money for buy-out schemes for peak officers and other ranchers (1.47 billion) is arranged via the Spring Note and is already parked in an account. The House and Senate must also pass the Spring Memorandum.
The important question that Minister Van der Waal – the sole director of the €24.3 billion fund – will have to answer in the House of Representatives on Wednesday is: How should this huge amount of tax money solve the problems of nature and agriculture?
The goals of the fund are well known: nitrogen precipitation in nature must be reduced, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced, water quality must be improved, biodiversity must become biodiversity, and agriculture must become more sustainable. But how to achieve these goals is not clear.
The coalition agreement included only a temporary expenditure profile until 2035. The largest item, about 7.5 billion euros, was for the purchase of livestock farms. About 7 billion of land is earmarked for delisting of dairy farmers’ land: for example, if that land is converted into a nature reserve. For innovative housing systems and other farm management: bln.
The Court of Auditors, the Council of State and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) have all warned against the “money-hunting” approach, as has VVD member Van Kampen of the billion-dollar fund. GroenLinks’ Bromet was even more adamant: She said in the discussion that the cabinet had “no vision whatsoever” to make farming more sustainable.
The House of Representatives wonders how it can watch until 2035 if all these billions are actually spent. The ghost is that twelve years later, the money has run out, and the problems haven’t been solved.
Left parties in particular worry that the Cabinet will focus solely on nitrogen. Nitrogen fixation, PBL has been saying for years, is not the way to restore Natura 2000 regions. More is needed to preserve animal and plant species: cleaner water, higher levels of groundwater to prevent drought, less fragmented landscapes, and more habitat.
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This broad approach to nature and farming is also under pressure from the rise of BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB). BBB leader Caroline van der Plas has been saying for some time that the Cabinet has a “one-sided view” on nitrogen. But the BBB is also calling for the number of Natura 2000 regions to be cut in half, because there are too many “small natural regions” in between. Many farmers oppose pumping groundwater into nature reserves; They don’t want a swampy land where cows and tractors can drown.
BBB also believes that a €24.3 billion fund is plenty. The party sees itself more in technical solutions, such as a stable system that combats ammonia by purifying the air and separating dung and urine.
Reason why parties like GroenLinks and PvdA are urging the Cabinet to take an ‘integrated’ approach with the Nature and Agriculture Fund – not just innovation. Because now it is still Minister van der Waal who will manage the billions for nature and agriculture. But if the government stops in 2025 or falls before then, it may just be Minister van der Plas.
A version of this article also appeared in the May 6, 2023 issue.
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