“Cows are the new coal,” says a global lobby group trying to persuade governments to abolish cattle farms on the grounds that manure is a major source of pollution. FAIRR, which bills itself as a group of investors concerned about climate change, is calling for the eradication of conventional agriculture because otherwise governments will not be able to meet their climate targets and global warming will kill the planet. But the real reason seems to be the attempt to introduce large-scale consumption of synthetic meat.
The investor group initiative is not alone in advocating for the dismantling of conventional farms. This new trend has even been embraced by White House officials. One of them is presidential adviser John Kerry, whose claims that agriculture is responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions have sparked an outcry from American farmers, who are threatened with losing their businesses. From the US to Sri Lanka, such protests have taken place in many countries over the past two years, with the most vehement in Europe in the Netherlands. The government in The Hague is making plans to cut livestock numbers by up to 30% to comply with environmental policies in Brussels, which is negotiating draconian regulations. These regulations will undoubtedly hit farmers in EU member states. Beyond the reduction in livestock numbers, at issue are targets to reduce the amount of fertiliser farmers can use, which some countries consider discriminatory. The amounts of subsidies are also considered discriminatory.
European agriculture has taken one blow after another in recent years. It has suffered in the Covid pandemic, along with other sectors of the economy, from delayed cross-border shipments and shortages of seasonal workers, it has experienced crises with economic and social impact – such as the milk and fruit and vegetable crises – droughts and phenomena, and it has had to cope with unfair competition from Ukrainian grain after the outbreak of war. And all this while a sword of Damocles hangs over farmers’ heads: the new European directives on reducing nitrogen and methane emissions.
The most vehement protests take place in the Netherlands. They continued this autumn after the government announced plans to reduce the number of cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens to combat nitrogen pollution. A 30% reduction in livestock numbers is one of the latest solutions the Dutch government has come up with to meet climate targets. To protect nature reserves, the agricultural sector will have to bear the brunt of greenhouse gas emission cuts. Dutch farmers have been protesting once every few months since last year, when the Netherlands was set a tough target for reducing pesticide use in agriculture, as required by the EU. According to calculations made by European Commission experts – it is not officially known how – the Netherlands would have to reduce the amount of pesticides used by 65% in order to reach the targets of the common green policy.
The Netherlands is the fifth largest food exporter in the world, after the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and China, and according to official statistics, it is among the biggest polluters of ammonia and nitrogen oxides in Europe, much of it from the country’s livestock farms. According to the analysis, to meet environmental targets, 50,000 farms will have to disappear. But Mark Rutte’s cabinet, which has a minister without portfolio in charge of managing the fight against ammonia and nitrogen oxides, has prepared a plan to buy these businesses. According to the government in The Hague, this will be “the biggest agricultural reform in the country’s history”.
The pesticide reduction targets also discussed in the European Parliament, have attracted the displeasure of some countries who consider that discrimination is again being made.
“We have, for example, the Netherlands in first place for pesticide use, which uses 8.8 kg/ha. Romania uses 0.6 kg/ha. The Netherlands will have to reduce by 65%, which will leave it with around 4 kg/ha. While Romania, with a 35% reduction, will be left with 0.4/ha. This is discrimination and incorrect application of this pesticide reduction. If the Netherlands were to reduce by 4.4 kg and stay at around 4 kg/ha, and Romania at 0.4 kg/ha, we would have a 10-fold difference. Between 4 and 0.4 is a huge difference. You cannot allow a country to use 10 times more pesticides than a country that already uses among the fewest pesticides in the EU. It is unfair and it puts Romania in a very difficult situation”, explained Romanian MEP Carmen Avram when the issue was discussed in the European Parliament.
Romania is not sacrificing agriculture for the sake of reducing methane emissions
There were also heated discussions on the issue of livestock reduction. Former Romanian environment minister Tanczos Barna said there was “great pressure” to do so. Most member states, including Romania, do not want to slaughter all their farmers for the sake of reducing methane, nitrogen and carbon emissions, so negotiations are tough.
“The dispute is fierce,” said the former Romanian environment minister earlier this year.
For the time being, not all EU countries are applying the European rules on checking how nitrogen, manure and thus methane emissions affect the environment. In Romania, these are checked on farms when the environmental permit is issued, regardless of their size. This authorisation is absolutely mandatory, especially if the farms are built with European funding. The new European rules will, however, be generally valid for all, said the former Romanian official.
European meat producers, including Romanians, have already voiced their objections to a 2010 amendment to the EU’s Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which requires them to take measures to reduce methane and ammonia emissions. The reason – rising production costs.
Many farms would thus fall under the directive, subjecting them to a regime similar to other large industrial installations. All in all, while there is talk of how to reduce meat consumption and grain products, the European Commission has found a solution: home-made cricket flour, which can be used to make everything from buns to snacks and can even be included in ‘meat’ dishes.Earlier this year, the commission authorised the entry onto the EU market of a product from Vietnam – the partially defatted powder of the cricket, scientifically known as “Acheta domesticus”, the third such product to be found in many of the foods we eat.
According to statistics, EU agricultural processes produced 382 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2020, out of total net GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions of 3.13 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Agriculture, forestry and fisheries rank fifth in the EU in terms of greenhouse gas polluting sectors, after energy (23.3%), transport including aviation (23.2%), households, trade, institutions and others (15.4%), and industry and construction (12.1%).
According to experts, agricultural processes generate three greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Methane and nitrous oxide are the main greenhouse gases generated by agriculture, which was also the largest source of emissions of these gases, producing 55.4% of methane emissions and 80.1% of nitrous oxide emissions in the EU. Both shares have increased over the last three decades. In contrast, agriculture accounted for only 0.4% of EU CO2 pollution, a share that remains unchanged between 1990 and 2020. Enteric fermentation, or the fermentation of feed during the digestive processes of animals, is a source of methane emissions and agricultural land is a source of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions, but can also store greenhouse gases. Emissions from enteric fermentation accounted for 42.9% of all greenhouse gas emissions from EU agriculture in 2020, agricultural land accounted for 38.4% of agricultural GHG pollution and manure management – 14.8%.