While there’s money to be made with nitrogen, we have to be honest in our calculations

Calculate honestly and clarify that improving sustainability creates significant profit, say Jan Willem Erisman and Volkert Engelsman.

The nitrogen calculations from RIVM were therefore correct. Nevertheless, social resistance to government measures concerning nitrogen is expected to persist. Citizens, farmers and builders remain stuck in the defence mechanism of denial: the damage to nature won’t get that bad so quickly. Moreover, the general view is that a different approach will cost an awful lot of money.

Online polls show that many still refuse to believe that nitrogen really is a problem, so we will reiterate: The Netherlands has the highest level of airborne nitrogen in Europe, despite all the reductions over the past 20 years. The problem has accumulated in the soil over decades, causing a change in soil chemistry and loss of biodiversity. Extinction starts with plants and small animals before continuing upwards in the food pyramid. Animal and insect populations in open nature areas and on farmlands have halved since 1990, according to a recent WWF report.

Half of the nitrogen ends up in the land around us

Agriculture is responsible for 70 percent of Dutch nitrogen emissions. Imported fodder and the production of artificial fertiliser have resulted in an enormous nitrogen surplus. The total amount of nitrogen that enters Dutch agriculture is twice as much as the amount of nitrogen that comes from products. Hence, the remaining half ends up in the environment.

A logical step would be to close the proverbial concentrate feeder valve and reduce the use of fertilizer. In February, the government made a proposal to spend half a billion to buy out farmers, along with technical measures. The reactions are predictable: farmers have rigorously rejected the plan, so environmental organisations feel that no real steps are being taken towards circular agriculture. There is a lack of long-term vision and coordination with other goals such as climate and biodiversity.

How can this deadlock be broken, and how do you make sure that not only farmers but all sectors tackle the nitrogen problem? This is not something ad hoc measures will solve. The roots of the problem are financial. You’ll have to rip them out.

Include hidden costs

The Netherlands PBL Environmental Assessment Agency estimates the environmental cost of nitrogen loss in the Netherlands to be from 1 to 5 billion euros per year. This cost is not passed on. If it was, a litre of milk in the supermarket would cost 1.40 euro instead of 1 euro.

With true cost accounting, such hidden costs can be made part of the economy, by apportioning them into products and including them in the profit definition. If you fail to do so, companies will continue to profit at the expense of the taxpayer, who bears the environmental costs. We have to do some honest calculating. This will result in a new distribution of costs and benefits and help to prevent further transfer of nitrogen to the soil and natural environment. If you calculate honestly, you will see that sustainability benefits society considerably. The Ecorys research bureau has recently calculated the effect of a 45 percent reduction in livestock, with full compensation for farmers, coupled with a 25 percent conversion to organic farming, over a period of 20 years. Result: this would solve the nitrogen problem, with a plus of €660 million per year.

The nitrogen crisis is an excellent opportunity to do away with the one-sided profit definition of ‘fattened-up chickens’. Our unparalleled expertise in agriculture puts us in the unique position to take the lead in creating and implementing a multifunctional agriculture and food policy in Europe, formulated with the future in mind.

Taking hidden costs into account is the first step.