The Netherlands could reduce its livestock farming by 30 percent. Photo shows cows clustered together in a barn with visible ear tags.
Will the Netherlands reduce its livestock farming by 30 percent? | Annie Sprat/Unsplash

The Netherlands’ Newest Climate Plan: Cut Livestock Herds By 30%

The Netherlands, the EU's largest exporter of meat, has proposed a radical new plan to take on climate change by reducing its livestock herds.

Dutch politicians are considering a 30 percent reduction in livestock to cut pollution.

The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) just published two different proposals, both of which could require farmers to raise fewer animals, sell emissions rights, and potentially hand over land usage to the state.

Environmentalists have welcomed the groundbreaking plans as a small step toward a much-needed reform of European food production. However, expropriation—the possession of private property by the state, usually for public use or communal benefit—remains controversial, and the agricultural community itself has met the proposals with criticism and protests.

While both proposals share the goal of a 30 percent livestock reduction, they differ in how to achieve this. Variant A heavily subsidizes sustainable land management, while Variant B employs more price incentives.

In general, directly supporting farmers to make changes and incentivizing climate-friendly choices are thought to be the most effective ways to promote both biodiversity and healthy farming communities. PBL predicts that either variant should significantly improve the habitats of species protected under the Birds and Habitats Directives, two-thirds of which are currently in decline.

“We are a relatively small country with a lot of inhabitants, industry, transport, and agriculture, so we are reaching the limits of what nature can take,” says Rudi Buis, a spokesperson for the agriculture ministry, as reported by the Guardian. “There is a high level of urgency for us to tackle the nitrogen compounds problem. This means that in the near future, choices must be made.”

Photo shows cattle with their head through bars in an agricultural setting.
Livestock farming is a huge contributor to global warming and environmental damage, particularly in the Netherlands. | Eric Herni/Unsplash

Netherlands livestock and climate change

Animal agriculture—and particularly factory farming—is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and pollution. The government hopes that increased measures will tackle the Netherlands’ national “nitrogen crisis,” which has breached EU law since 2019.

In a landmark case, the Dutch supreme court upheld a ruling to demand more effective action on climate change from the government. The court cited the European convention on human rights, which holds that individual nations must safeguard their citizens. 

The new proposals follow speed limit reductions on motorways, the cancellation of particularly high-impact construction projects, and a law that promises healthy nitrogen levels for at least 50 percent of protected nature areas.

Ammonia (a nitrogen-based compound produced by animal waste) and other fertilizers create harmful particulate emissions, pollute air and water, and damage biodiversity through acid rain, algae blooms, and other human-caused phenomena.

Nitrogen is also 265 times more effective at trapping heat within the atmosphere than CO2, and the meat and dairy industries alone produce more nitrogen than is sustainable for the planet. According to the recent Meat Atlas report, the world’s five largest meat and dairy producers emit more GHGs than fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands is the EU’s primary exporter of meat products, and in 2019 produced approximately 3.7 million metric tons of animal protein. The country raises over 100 million chickens, pigs, and cattle to generate approximately €9.3 billion per year.

A livestock reduction of 30 percent means a significant decrease in both emissions and individual animals farmed, leading to environmental, welfare, and biodiversity improvements nationwide.