Emissions from agriculture

In 2018, the agricultural sector was responsible for 86% of the ammonia emissions, 22% of the nitrogen oxides and 40% of the total non-methane volatile organic compound emissions in the Netherlands. In addition, around 23% of the national emission of primary PM10 and 9% of primary PM2.5 came from agricultural activities.

Ammonia emissions are reported to have increased since 2013. The ammonia emissions are important for the Dutch ambition to reach the WHO guideline levels of particulate matter, as ammonia is a precursor for secondary particulate matter. These emissions are also urgent to address for the sake of the overall nitrogen pollution situation. The Commission recently recommended the Netherlands to prioritise ammonia reduction measures as part of the new national CAP Strategic Plan. Among the main challenges for the Dutch agriculture sector is the pollution from intensive rearing of poultry and pigs. Among measures to address the ammonia emissions so far, progress is notable in the increase in low-emission housing systems for pigs and poultry.

The low-emission housing systems should ensure both indoor and outdoor air quality, also taking into account the health of the farmers and animal welfare. The government has made subsidies available for the development and realisation of low-emission housing and business operations through certain subsidy modules. The intensity of the sector is another aspect to consider further. In addition to the voluntary schemes in place to encourage reduced livestock production, strategic policy decisions regarding future livestock numbers could be discussed.

In addition to information campaigns and awareness raising, it was mentioned that there could be further focus on efficient implementation and enforcement of applicable rules. These measures are often most efficient when applied together: inspections to ensure that rules are followed, coupled with information on why the rules apply.

The dialogue covered discussions on possible synergies (notably climate, water quality, reduction of odour pollution and zoonosis risks) and risks for trade-offs (e.g. animal welfare, unless implemented in an optimal way to meet both objectives).

It was stressed that the air pollution reduction measures should not be applied in a way to discourage organic farming but ensure fair competition while rewarding practices to prevent or mitigate pollution. Among the main barriers to further progress, the narrow financial margins for farmers were quoted. In some cases, there may be a willingness to act but no ability to do it because of financial constraints and a perceived too high risk of investments. The price competition is high and consumers do not fully reward cleaner production by willingness to accept higher prices.

One area to further explore is therefore outreach to food consumers and awareness raising about the impact of consumer choice. While it is clear that not all consumers have equal possibility to make such choices, behaviour change should at least not be hampered by lack of knowledge.

This must be coupled with a fair approach to pricing (e.g. tax incentives) to ensure that cleaner production can be rewarded by a higher profit margin than more intensive production with larger pollution footprint.

Information was also provided about the available EU funding linked to the Common Agricultural Policy, currently with much untapped potential for air pollution reduction investment. The Dutch Ministry of Agriculture was invited to further explore opportunities and discuss with the Commission DG AGRI.

Overall, it was stressed that this is an area that would benefit from more cross-border cooperation and exchanges between the neighbour countries, to ensure fair competition.

To ensure success on all these opportunities, it is important that the not only the Ministry for Infrastructure and Water Management should be involved, but also the Ministry of Agriculture and the agricultural community should remain closely involved and committed to reaching the emission reduction targets.

Dr.ir. A (Albert) Winkel

(Wageningen University & Research)

True solutions

In the Netherlands, about 14% of the national PM10 emission comes from poultry barns, 3% from pigs, and 1% from cattle. The transition from cage housing systems to alternative systems with littered floors (EU Directive 1999/74/EC), had led to a major increase in PM emission from egg-producing farms. Hence, an animal welfare problem has been swapped for an air pollution problem. In contrast to what is often stated in public and political debate, technological innovation and research have produced ample technologies to reduce PM emissions in existing barns. Other factors, such as narrow financial margins in farming, hamper broad implementation. Such technologies, however, should be considered quick fixes for coming years. Emissions of odour, ammonia and PM from poultry are caused by the fact that faeces is used as cheap and easy litter substrate.

True solutions, therefore, are housing designs that integrally combine litter floors and freedom of movement with low emissions.

Low-emission livestock farming

Our goal is to achieve a low-emission livestock farming sector in order to limit as much as possible damage to both human and animal health and to nature and biodiversity. The goals regarding the reduction of nitrogen deposition in the agricultural sector are laid down in the law on nitrogen reduction and nature improvement.

To achieve these goals, we want to help farmers as much as possible to switch to low-emission agriculture. For example, this can be done by subsidizing innovations and investments that are intended to stimulate companies to become low-emission. Part of these investments could be paid for with European funds, e.g. by including emission-reducing interventions in the eco-arrangements of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This way, farmers are rewarded for their efforts to reduce emissions.

Emission reduction is a major priority. Of course we will support this in the National Strategic Plan (NSP) for the CAP that is yet to be completed.

Hugo van Kasteel

(Director of Animal Agrochains and Animal Welfare at the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality)

Paul Ruyssenaars

(Senior Sientific Officer at RIVM National Institute for Public Health and the Environment)

Agriculture and air pollution

In my presentation I showed that primary PM10 emissions stem primarily from animal housing in the south-eastern part of the country. Ammonia concentrations show the same pattern: higher concentrations can be found in intensive farming areas. Ammonia also plays an important role in the formation of secondary particles (ammonia nitrate and -sulphate). Therefor not only PM10, but also ammonia is considered under the Dutch Clean Air Agreement. 

Closing the circle towards a more circular agriculture will need substantial efforts. Low manure application was an effective measure in the past. Technologies like air scrubbers are being introduced, but – due to cost aspects – only feasible for large farms. Other measures like changes in animal diets may help in reducing nitrogen excretion, but may not be helpful for achieving climate targets (CH4 emissions). But we have to answer the question whether circular agriculture is possible without reducing the number of animals.  

The debate in the Netherlands is rather polarized; which may be not very helpful in the context of finding effective solutions. In that context RIVM participates in an initiative “farmers and neighbours”, measuring local contributions of the agricultural sector and aiming for a more open dialogue between farmers and their local neighbours on environmental issues and solutions as a means to contribute to a more constructive approach.

PODUR: implementation of emission reducing techniques

The objective of the POultry DUst Reduction (PODUR) interregional pilot project is to improve air quality inside and outside poultry houses in Europe by implementation of emission reducing techniques. A second objective is to enable research and development trajectories focused on sensors to measure emissions in harsh environments.

The PODUR project aims at distributing several fine dust and/or ammonia reducing techniques for poultry farms among several European countries, to see if the selected techniques operate the same in different environments. To measure the performance of the systems, sensors from companies from the different participating countries will be used. In that way, the project can contribute as well, to the development of a solid and reliable real-time monitoring device for fine dust.

PODUR is still looking for more regions, farmers, suppliers, innovators etc. to join us in improving the air quality around livestock areas in Europe.