Netherlands yields to EU on manure policy

Nitrates directive targets to be met on time through limits imposed on manure application

The Dutch cabinet has approved an agricultural restructuring programme, which it hopes will allow the Netherlands to comply with the EU nitrates directive's groundwater contamination limits five years earlier than previously planned, by reducing production of livestock manure.

The new proposals come after strong criticism from the European Commission and are the Dutch government's second attempt to solve the problem of manure overproduction after a successful action by farmers shelved a previous law which would have cut the number of pigs each farmer could keep. In a paper outlining details of the plans, agriculture minister Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst said they would fulfil an "urgent" need to solve the "chronic environmental problems" caused by the livestock sector.

The first attempt to regulate animal numbers indirectly was the introduction of a mineral accounting system (Minas), in which losses of phosphate and nitrate nutrients to groundwater are calculated and heavily penalised over certain levels. Under this scheme, the Dutch government estimated that nitrate levels in groundwater would decline below the EU limit of 50 milligrams per litre (mg/l) by 2008 rather than by 2003 as stipulated in the directive.

However, in a reasoned opinion issued this summer, the European Commission doubted the ability of Minas to reduce inputs of nutrients to groundwater and threatened court action if the Netherlands continued in its failure to apply one of the main provisions of the nitrates directive - a limit on the amount of manure that can be applied to farmland of 170 kilograms per hectare (ENDS Daily 2 July).

Under the new proposals, the manure application limit will be introduced from 2002 and farmers unable to dispose of their excess manure will be forced to reduce livestock numbers. The government calculates that the scheme will now achieve compliance with the 50 mg/l limit by 2003 and will reduce pig numbers by up to 30% and poultry numbers by up to 20%. A budget of euros 227m (DF500m) has been proposed to help farmers restructure their businesses, while the government plans to recoup half of this through anticipated savings on treatment to remove nutrients from groundwater.

Follow Up:
Dutch agriculture ministry, tel: +31 70 378 4062.

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