In the Netherlands, phosphate restrictions mean farmers may abandon rarer, less productive breeds
Phosphate production is an issue that the European Union takes very seriously, imposing national quotas on Member States that are met with penalties should they exceed them. However, as part of the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme, countries with lower phosphate production are able to sell some of their quota to more productive countries which would otherwise exceed them. This is important for the dairy sector in the Netherlands (which creates millions of tons of phosphate annually—bovine manure is a major source of phosphate pollution), as it puts rarer, less productive breeds at risk of being abandoned by farmers. The Dutch parliament will debate the matter of national phosphate restrictions on May 16th, which could result in farmers being restricted to a fixed number of animals.
Up until 31st March 2015, there was a milk quota in place in the European Union too, which restricted milk production across the bloc. But since it was lifted, industrial dairy producers in the Netherlands expanded their operations, leading to an excess in phosphate production. This is especially true because cows raised in the intensive, industrial dairy system eat feed which contains very high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen, more than their digestive systems can handle, and thus, they are expelled in manure. Intensive farms are thus major sources of phosphate and nitrate pollution, which seeps into the groundwater. Now, the Dutch government is planning to reduce the number of dairy cows in the country by as much as 8% – yet this strategy is riddled with holes that will render it both damaging to the country’s agricultural biodiversity. The rare cattle breeds, which account for only 0.25% of the total population, as they produce less milk (and less phosphate), will be under the most pressure if total numbers are to be reduced.
In a situation where cattle head is restricted but profit-motivated producers are able to buy the phosphate quota of smaller producers, what inevitably follows is an increase of the most highly-productive breeds as a percentage of the total bovine population. In this case, the preferred breed is the Dutch-American Holstein Friesian (which are kept indoors, milked by robots and constantly fed), which will become an ever-larger share of the total, while threatened breeds such as the so called Groninger Blaarkop and Lakenvelder, both rare cattle breeds, risk the butcher.
These two breeds have been nicknamed ‘Polderpanda’ due to their striking similarity to the Giant Panda. The Stichting Zeldzame Huisdierrassen (SZH – Foundation for Rare Breeds) is actively working to save rare breeds in the Netherlands, and with the support of 590 donors in a crowdfunding initiative, raised €16,000 in four days and saving hundreds of Dutch rare breed cattle from the slaughterhouse. The SZH will continue to make objections against the proposed new laws because they are implicitly unjust. The SZH states that rare breeds should not be compared with high-yield cows but appreciated for their own qualities, and should enjoy exemption status from the restriction given their value to biodiversity.
The Netherlands have around seven cattle species at risk. Other threatened cows are the Red and White Friesian, the Dutch Belted and the Deep-Red Cattle, they all will be pushed closer to extinction due to the new phosphate regulations.
There are other curious aspects of the Dutch government’s strategy which are open to question: for instance, calves imported for veal are not subjected to the phosphate quota, while calves bred extensively (rather than intensively) and suckled by their own mothers are subject to the quota. Those farmers who have maintained their traditions for centuries are effectively being punished for not adopting industrial production methods, for not abusing animal welfare. The very idea of any new small-scale farmers entering the sector to support rare breeds is now unthinkable, so any such farmers who do abandon these breeds out of economic necessity will not be replaced. And as we all know, once a breed is gone, it’s gone forever.
Reurt Boelema, coordinator of the Slow Food Presidium for Lakenvelder cattle, told us “people know that farming is not simply a mechanical operation, where you put Unit X (feed) into Unit Y (animal) and take out Unit Z (beef, milk) and dispose of the unwanted byproducts like Unit M (manure). Agriculture is landscape, animal welfare, the environment, food safety, bio security. And manure is just something that is needed in between the animal and the crop or grass. If you have land, manure is needed, not waste. Agriculture should be focused on that circle.”
“The members of the Lakenvelder Presidium are working sustainably, and have been doing exactly as the government expected them to: no pollution, cattle raised outdoors, providing good, clean and fair food to consumers who live close to the farm. These new rules are really going to hurt us. We have no more than two or two and a half animals per hectare, and we need phosphate for grass and other crops to grow. We’re not asking for subsidies, but a fair playing field. The producers responsible for creating the phosphate excess problem will be the least affected by the change in policy, as they can afford to buy phosphate rights as part of emissions trading. The producers who did least to contribute to the problem, like us, will be the worst affected.
“The small-scale extensive sucker cattle farmers have to compete for their phosphate rights with intensive large-scale dairy farmers. While the latter group has grown over 10% in terms of production in the last five years, the former group has decreased by 40%.”
It is ironic, of course, that at the same time as pursuing their phosphate reduction plan and the new phosphate rights, the Dutch government elsewhere promotes more sustainable, organic agriculture, and local food systems, as the current approach to phosphate reduction will damage traditional agriculture. Even if the correct level of phosphate emissions is reached, simply achieving one numerical target does not solve the problem as a whole. There are many other pollutants related to agricultural production: nitrates, ammonia, methane.
Slow Food urges the Dutch government to reconsider the nature of phosphate quotas in the country. The work small-scale farmers raising rare breeds are doing to protect biodiversity, cultural heritage and long-standing agricultural traditions must be taken into before imposing strict quotas that will threaten their livelihoods. Meanwhile the factory-scale dairy industry is free to continue unabated, as they can afford to buy the right to produce more phosphate in emissions trading schemes. It’s not good, clean or fair.