Wageningen University & Research: Research explores tension about manure policy between dairy farmers and government

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Wageningen University & Research has conducted a study entitled A conversation about Cows, Nutrient Cycles and Manure that explores the tensions between farmers and the government. The study looks into a major divisive issue between the government and the dairy farming: the manure policy. This qualitative study was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Quality to find out what underlying issues are causing the tensions between farmers and the government in the debate about the manure policy.

This report features five portraits of dairy farmers who are working towards a circular agriculture in their own way. They share their experiences with and perspective of the manure policy. Three government officials and a manure consultant also give their viewpoint on the issue. The study was carried out before the EU withdrew the Netherlands’ nitrates derogation.

More relevant than ever
The manure issue has been a source of tension between farmers and policymakers for some 50 years. Now that the Rutte 4 government is committed to the transition to circular agriculture, and the reduction of nitrogen and greenhouse gases and the improvement of water quality have become priorities, manure policy is more relevant than ever. A letter to parliament entitled ‘Contours of a new manure policy’ drafted in 2020 by Carola Schouten, the then minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, described the need for a manure policy that is simpler, more effective and future-proof. This new policy is based on three pillars: land-based dairy and beef production (farms have sufficient land to place the manure for the number of cows they keep), removal and processing of manure from farms that do not have enough land, and cultivation practices tailored to specific regions.

Six areas of tension emerged from the interviews. The researchers believe that understanding these tensions better is an important step towards finding a solution. We have provided a summary of two of these areas of tension here. The others can be read in the report.

Areas of tension
The most salient point that came to light is that both dairy farmers and government officials do not understand the logic behind requiring farmers to dispose of their own manure off-farm while still allowing them to apply chemical fertiliser. The government hopes to alleviate this discrepancy by processing animal manure into a product similar to a chemical fertiliser.

Area of tension 1: complying with international environmental agreements clashes with the entrepreneurial independence of farmers
Most people want both, but for decades manure policy has prevented dairy farmers’ from taking their own initiative to search for new ways to reduce environmental pollution. Yet the Netherlands is failing to comply with international agreements, and so political pressure is mounting to intervene even more.

Area of tension 2:applying the same rules to all parties prevents dairy farmers from experimenting
The five dairy farmers interviewed are each pioneering in different ways to improve the nutrient cycle on their farms. However, they feel held back by the manure policy. For example, three dairy farmers expressed interest in the ‘cow toilet’. By separating faeces and urine, they hope to reduce ammonia emissions and produce better quality fertilisers. However, they are not allowed to experiment with this innovation, and the government does not see how this can be permitted as long as the environmental agreements are not met.

Recommendations
The manure policy aims for a land-based dairy sector. This means that dairy farmers must be able to apply all their own manure on their own land (or the land of another farmer). The researchers recommend investigating what the consequences of this land-based policy will be for dairy farmers. This will provide dairy farmers and policymakers with a better idea of the future of the sector and the room to develop. The researchers also advise broadening manure policy to include other sustainability goals in the areas of biodiversity, climate emissions and public health.

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